Veteran director David Cronenberg, who for decades has occupied a distinguished residence as one of the most interesting and inventive living American filmmakers, seemed to be sailing into safer passages.
A trio of classy dramas, hard-hitting at times but nothing you couldn’t take your mum to (A History of Violence , Eastern Promises  and this year’s A Dangerous Method) bore little of the audacity of the circuit breakers that defined his oeuvre as proprietor of the ‘New Flesh‘: the wild mutations of body and psyche in films such as Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981), The Fly (1986), Crash (1996), and eXistenZ (1999).
Post-GFC existential rumination Cosmopolis — faithfully adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, prophetically penned a handful of years before America’s banking system thumped the world’s ledgers and spawned global recession — changes the state of play in Cronenberg’s career. Or perhaps it simply realigns perception of it, reminding audiences of the visionary’s penchant for at times bewildering intellectual games boxed in simple premises.
The film’s most obvious achievement, the number one talking point for the MSM movie press peanut gallery, is to bring Twilight alumni Robert Pattinson squinting into the daylight — or if you like, revelling in the shadows — of art cinema, to the cries of confusion from tweenage girls staring greedily at his poster on their bedroom walls, who may have considered Francis Lawrence’s soapy 2011 circus-drama Water for Elephants a mite too heavy for their liking.
If Pattinson groupies buy the ticket and take the Cosmopolis ride, they may find themselves not so much in the wrong cinema as the wrong plane of existence. Like everybody else they will be railroaded into a simple choice: whether to engage with the film on the intellectual levels it demands or dismiss it as something incompatibly strange; a gunk of ramblings from alien characters in a ‘whole world is a stage’ cast of crazy-pattern exchanges. It is based in a not-too-distant metropolis hinterland, a city sort of like our own and sort of not, made harsh by grim realities and chilled by the reverberating vibes of a dream-like wind.
Most of Cosmopolis is based in and around the limousine of 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer (Pattinson), which he uses as a traveling office, penthouse and forum for the views of fulminating associates who pop in and out and are rarely seen again, as if he were dimly recalling from his deathbed a lifetime’s worth of meet-ups condensed into single fleeting moments. The film is essentially a collection of conversations.
Inside his schmick set of wheels Packer speaks of betting against the yuan and peers at screens informing him “of things that haven’t happened yet.” He’s hardwired into something, but we don’t know exactly what. We know his stocks begins to slide, the potential erosion of his fortune greeted with reptilian-eyed nonchalance; Cronenberg isn’t handing us any plot points on a platter.
Packer’s limousine slowly treks through congested New York streets, his existence a bubble disconnected from the central nervous system of the world it moves through. Packer’s head of security informs him of ominous behaviour lurking somewhere very far off frame: threats to the president, threats to himself, threats to the economy, the movements of protesters.
Packer is a corporation, not a human being, and if viewers cotton on to Cronenberg’s fresh take on flesh — twisting the shape of a human body into occupying the ‘identity’ of enterprise — the film moves from blabbering heads to deep cryptology and never turns back.
The dramatic friction in Cosmopolis is generated by personified components of the outside world who hop in the car, attempt to rationalise their existence while attempting to rationalise Packer’s as he rationalises them, the vested interests they represent and shifting sands they stand upon. Packer is linked to another institution, his wife, their relationship depicted as a boardroom series of agreements and stipulations. Both represent emperors of industry, staring cooly into each other’s windows and seeing only their own steely rationale reflected back.
Packer flatly expresses that he dislikes being reasonable and passes time with sex, watching screens, sipping vodka, getting his prostrate examined and participating in conversations that move backwards and forwards like bank transactions. All industry and trade, a series of exchanges, business divorced from the stark danger of being until Packer’s empire, visualised through the cool confines of Pattinson’s body and the shield of the vehicle it resides in, breaks down — graffiti soiling the sleekness of the car, a mess splattering his face, an uneven haircut, no more black sun glasses shielding his perception of the world outside — and he is forced to confront melted margins.
Cronenberg’s ‘New Flesh’ dribbles into the film’s peripheries. We watch a politician stabbed repeatedly in the eye on television, hear fantasies about inverted genitalia and foot fungus, see surreal vision of an open casket funeral proceeding through New York streets, absorb a recurring motif involving rats, which seems not just a product of the film’s protesters but a sort of protest from the film itself, a warning that something in its core is rotten.
But like Packer the audience are largely closed off to reality outside the limousine and away from its protag’s presence. Cronenberg relegates his audience to the one percent, sitting with him in his sterile souped-up ride, the flames of a barely comprehensible war being fanned somewhere in the distance, the wheels spinning below the car leaving trails of cinders as its crawls along. The dreamy disquiet creates a sense of something there that ain’t exactly real, or something real that it ain’t exactly there, and emotion — underlined in a brilliantly odd sequence with Paul Giamatti as a towel wrapped crazy man — will always rebel against logic; that inevitably the two will come to a head and the end result is potentially, and perhaps ultimately, neither.
This is crucial commentary on the Occupy Movement, where it went wrong and where it went right, and why it never really became tangible. If you need Cosmopolis contextualised in conventional parlance, “how the mighty fall” might be the best loose fitting definition, a film lit under the fantasy lights of the rich paying for the spoils of decadent lifestyle.
The simmering Occupy undercurrent represents the push for emotion against enterprise, for hot-blooded humanity to claim some territory against the steely intellectual distancing required by capitalism and mass enterprise, if not to triumph in war than to keep from losing entirely. A sense that the public are going down so deep the rivers of the rich are going to weep, that the homicidal bitchin’ of the masses will finally turn from words to action and violence. Or that the elite may bring it willingly upon themselves as Parker does, his character blended by Pattison’s closed wound performance, a trio of isms: equal parts narcissism, masochism and nihilism.
Cosmopolis is the first great GFC art film, linked to financial and social catastrophe in tantalisingly evasive ways. In retrospect, knowing where the system started to crumble and how it all turned to hell, it had to come from inside. It had to be an American story. Where better to frame it then the duel setting Cronenberg deploys: on the street in plain sight, but behind tinted glass, in a vehicle doubling as a corporate king’s increasingly soiled throne.
The film is destined to be derided and misunderstood, and, deliciously, to thrust stray tweens into an idiot wind of confusion when it is realised that the prime-cut of Robert Pattinson’s surface values can’t possibly appease them. Not this time. Whether Cosmopolis was financed partly because of his involvement, or whether Cronenberg believed he was the best man for the job, or both, few can say. But yes: the Twilight smirk-maker is very good in a role that plays to his strengths, not as a chest-exposed heartthrob but as a societal icon we might like, we might not like, be deep or cursorily familiar with, but whose image connotes largely empty fame, the person inside invisible behind a sheet of celebrity.
The cast intone the kind of downbeat histrionic dialogue strewn throughout Larry Charles’ 2003 post-apocalyptic word smith mind-bender Masked and Anonymous, in which every conversation plays like they have been precisely prepared and weighed beforehand. The characters initially sound like high-powered intellectual robots exchanging internal monologues, their words snappy and nuanced but their brain-to-mouth filters virtually non-existent, a sort of politicised, extreme Seinfeldian reversal where nothing is always everything.
Semi stream-of-consciousness conversations spray across a smattering of subjects, linked by the characters’ constant appraisal and reappraisal of their positioning in the universe: of themselves, of each other, of what the other side of the equation expects, of what the numbers add up to. Even the way they talk is business.
If this is psycho babble for blocked ears, find the right pair of lobes and the film, with DeLillo’s dialogue and Cronenberg’s audacious image of a ravaged metropolis, is more than distinctive, or original, or unique. It is virtually unparalleled. It is also another wretchedly potent vision of a people’s dream gone bad, and while this one may have germinated in Uncle Sam’s sleep, we no longer have the privilege to call it “American”.
Cosmopolis’ Australian theatrical release date: August 2, 2012.
To read my interview with interview with David Cronenberg, published in March, click here.