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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
September 2012

Cosmopolis

Welcome to the desert of the real

Cronenberg's deadpan humor illuminates the abstractions at the heart of 'Cosmopolis'

Cosmopolis
Entertainment One
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Don DeLillo
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche and Mathieu Amalric
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

As a person dies, so they say, his bodily functions may finally get the best of him. His muscles relax, and with the body at its most vulnerable and absolute, his bowels and bladder evacuate themselves once and for all.

I'm reminded of this decisive and final gesture of human physicality when watching Cosmopolis, a film consumed by the fleshy, the carnal and the anatomical, but only as something of a death rattle - a cathartic final release (or series of releases). There is a desperate preoccupation with the senses - with any tangible physical sensation - as a sort of defiant response to the pending demise of physical reality. It is obsessed with the sound of body parts, the smell of sex, the shape of organs, the visceral thrill of violence. Its world is in a state of metamorphosis, from the physical to the theoretical, from a place of concrete things to a mass abstraction of ideas. The corporeal fascination feels like the rational (yet futile) response to the takeover of data and the death of the reel* real. (*This is director David Cronenberg's first foray into digital photography, and for symbolic purposes that's just as well.)

Much of the film takes place inside a white stretch limo, where Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky keenly take advantage of the shape and dimensions of its canal-like interior. The central figure (and owner of the limo) is genius billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). Over the course of one day and night we will feel him bleed and smell his stink. He will have a one-on-one business meeting in his limo while simultaneously undergoing a prostate exam, his face betraying a strange mixture of pleasure and discomfort. He will have the urge to bring about his own destruction.

His head of security (Kevin Durand) insists there is a legitimate threat on Eric's life. Eric is unfazed - perhaps even excited by the prospect. All Eric wants is a haircut. All day he'll be on his way to get this haircut. His security is a burden. He accepts the cocoon it provides him only out of habit. He'd rather go without, escape it somehow, expose himself to the dangers of the outside.

On this day he's losing hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. He's been betting against the yen; the yen has been winning. He does not understand this. He insists - he has calculated - that the yen cannot go any higher. Yet it continues to do just that. But he seems to disregard his personal wealth. It is no longer meaningful in any tangible sense; it is merely an idea. A number. The idea of money, of value. All throughout Cosmopolis we see this motif repeated - of the idea of things overtaking the things themselves. (In many ways this reflects a longstanding truth - "value" has always been in large part theoretical and arbitrary.)

Eric tells his wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) - whom he keeps running into throughout the day, the two of them attempting to manufacture the idea of themselves as a couple ("Isn't this what people do?") - about his theoretically soundproof limousine. The limo was taken apart in order to be armored. Eric insisted that it be lined with cork as well, to soundproof it from the outside noise. Did it work? "Of course it didn't," Eric says. But this isn't the point. The point is that he had it done, for its own sake. "The idea of it. This is what finally matters. ... It's something a man does."

This theme - of civilization's pieces being defined by their conceptual, rather than literal, nature - is spelled out most explicitly during an extended scene between Eric and his chief of theory, Vija Kinsky (the great Samantha Morton). On this day the city is being overrun by anti-capitalist protesters, whose presence, Vija insists, only serve to reinforce the system they're protesting. Later on the limo passes by a man self-immolating - a gesture Vija flippantly dismisses as nothing more than an appropriation of someone else's idea. At one point Vija monologues about the way society is built - theories, fears, self-fulfilling prophecies. "Present" and "future" as two abstract ideas that exist simultaneously, one fighting against the other. The scene is one of the film's best and by far its most didactic.

As an experience, Cosmopolis is wildly uneven - but then, I don't recall seeing a Cronenberg film that wasn't. I've never viewed him as the "master filmmaker" many others see, but I found this film one of his most fascinating efforts in years, perhaps dating back to 1996's Crash (another of his many anatomically-inclined efforts).

What I liked most was the way he finds all these unexpected spaces for absurd humor and observation, so the film as a whole plays like more of a deadpan comedy than anything else. Its fears and obsessions (like most fears and obsessions) are both urgent and silly.

One of the most interesting of the film's many curiosities is the enigma that is Robert Pattinson. The complete emptiness and void of personality we saw in Twilight remains, but is put to such better use here. I'm not sure if it's a good performance or just great casting. Maybe both. In any case, he proves the perfect embodiment of Cosmopolis' existential core - the American capitalist ideal making one last gasp at primal being before inevitably drawing his last breath and being swallowed up by his own abstraction of himself.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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