By Alan Mattli
To be able to assert the true value of a film requires multiple watching. Some works collapse under the weight of a more informed, perhaps more focused viewing (Quentin Tarantino excels at making this kind of movie), others measure up to the initial impression. But there is a third category of select works that thrive, even soar when viewed again, and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, one of the most critically controversial films of 2012 – journals like Sight & Sound or Cahiers du cinéma hailed it as one of the year’s best, while mainstream critics panned it –, is one of these glorious few.
In my original review, I concluded that it is “a weighty piece of political cinema”, “a partisan movie proclaiming, in a highly complex way, the global anti-capitalist revolution”. And although I still stand by these words, I now feel that I didn’t do the film justice, that, with my focus on its political dimensions, I barely punctured the surface of this virtuoso exercise in intellectual filmmaking, which in years to come may well be seen as an underappreciated masterpiece.
It is nevertheless sensible, though, to use the film’s political undercurrents as a starting point to a more in-depth analysis, particularly because numerous critics, even those approving of Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don De Lillo’s novel of the same name (published in 2003, misread as a treatise on America’s, and especially New York’s post-9/11 paranoia), have pointed out that these aspects serve as mere diversions and are ultimately of little consequence. However, this does seem at least somewhat short-sighted, considering the fact that the film, like the book, takes great care in dilligently dissecting the mindset behind the world’s dominant economic system. DeLillo presaged its downfall, Cronenberg, with the Wall Street crash of 2008 fresh in his mind, dismantles it.
Cosmopolis centres around 28-year-old multi-billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson in what should turn out to be a coming-of-age role), who decides to pay a visit to his barber – regardless of the chaos haunting New York that day: a visit from the American president paralyses traffic, a funeral procession honouring a Sufi rap star marches through the few streets that have remained open, and a horde of Occupy-like protesters roams the city, vandalising everything in its way. But Packer is unmoved by all this, including two “credible threats” (a term which, interestingly, is derived from economic vernacular) to his life and the fact that he is single-handedly destroying his financial empire by betting against the rise of the Yuan, and instructs his chief of security (Kevin Durand) to guard his heterotopic, eerily sound-proof stretch limousine as it progresses through the increasingly hellish cityscape, inch by inch.
Along the way, Packer has several conversations with advisers, his doctor, his lover (Juliette Binoche), and, on occasion, with his wife of no more than a few weeks (Sarah Gadon). When looked at from a purely political angle, these talks, which often quote DeLillo’s source material verbatim, do create the sense of a world ruled by an untenable system: the American stock market is in crisis because of a pause in the finance minister’s speech; Packer and one of his cohorts ponder whether rats could be feasibly introduced as a means of currency (they conclude that they could); a theoretical analyst comments on what is happening in the world of finance but keeps reminding us that “I understand none of this”.
But, and this is what seeing Cosmopolis again made me realise, Cronenberg only uses this very topical issue of rampant capitalism as a springboard to making a much more universal, maybe even more profound point about the human condition in a world that has allowed itself to be overtaken by digits, bits, bytes, and inconceivable sums of money that don’t even exist in reality. This breed of capitalism that is devoid of thought and emotion is the symptom of mankind behaving accordingly, which is the reason why the protesters, who are throwing dead rats at people and appropriate Marxist slogans (“A specter is haunting the world. The specter of capitalism”) fight a futile battle: they are themselves the product of their ruthless, fast moving, fast forgetting surroundings – an amused Packer comments on how they have degenerated from a global movement into a faint memory in just two hours.
Even their motives are corrupted. When Packer finally meets his potential killer named Benno Levin (the first “credible threat” turns out to be an ultimately harmless Mathieu Amalric, whose monologue brilliantly disassembles the idea of celebrity cult), himself an ardent anti-capitalist, played by Paul Giamatti, he is told that he must be killed, “for the air you breathe”, “the air you take away from a poor child in Bangladesh”. Packer smirks at the very notion and Levin admits that this was not what he wanted to say, that this kind of outrage is dishonest. So it is not only the 1% that have become emotionally hollow shells: while they have lost any sense of true value through their excesses, the 99% are clueless as to what it is they are so passionately protesting against.
And this is the point where Cosmopolis leaves petty politics behind and enters the realm of philosophy and true social critique. Cronenberg’s cinema has always been a cinema of fusion, of vaguely transhumanist ideas. Films like Crash or eXistenZ explicitly dealt with the merging of machines with the human body; whereas more recent works like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and particularly A Dangerous Method (despite being the weakest of the three) highlighted how people associate with notions of their own construction; history, crime and punishment, psychology. Cosmopolis takes this even further: here, even these abstract reference points are lost. Humanity, having abandoned tangible things altogether already, no longer embraces meaning itself; rather, it has merged with the virtual void it has created itself, all the while still desperately trying to find meaning wherever it can.
Indeed, below its undoubtedly anti-capitalist surface, the film’s primary concerns are meaning, or the lack thereof, and dissociation. “What does it mean?”, is a recurring phrase, uttered by almost everyone, directed at even the most mundane things. For instance, Packer is determined to find out the metaphorical dimension of his having an “asymmetrical prostate”. The answer, when he finally learns it (“Nothing”), is a crushing disappointment to him, largely, one assumes, because it suggests that his quests for meaning in other fields, namely stock market fluctuations and economic instabilities, are just as pointless.
In terms of dissociation, Cronenberg picks up on a whole range of influences, from Sartre and Brecht to Judith Butler’s performativity. When Packer talks about other people, his words, coated in what can only be described as bored disdain, immediately evoke Sartre’s famous aphorism “L’enfer c’est les autres”. When he takes his wife out for dinner, they have a meta conversation about how they are supposed to behave, which is unmkistakably Butleresque: “Am I being too wifely?”, she asks. “We’re like people talking. Isn’t this how they talk? I’m making conversation”, he says.
Most prominently, however, this alienation from society – its norms and mores as well as its individual members – recalls the film’s cinematic cognates, such as its titular cousin, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, or Stanley Kubrick’s Arthur Schnitzler adaptation Eyes Wide Shut, another film that was accepted as the masterwork that it is only years after its original release. Like Lang in his silent epic, Cronenberg portrays a world which seemingly celebrates individualism but fosters the development of a dulled, uniform, unfeeling mass. In fact, true emotion is all but dead in Cosmopolis. Helped by DeLillo’s cold prose, every character speaks like he or she is living in a bubble (which has been erroneously ascribed to bad acting), every line is uttered with the precision and the artificiality of an automaton.
Feelings are reserved either for inanimate objects – for example, Benno Levin once comments on how he used “to love the Baht”, the currency of Thailand – or, as Mathieu Amalric’s mock assassin later alludes to, celebrities one has never met personally; the only time Packer is genuinely sad is when he learns that the dead rapper, whose funeral is blocking New York’s streets, is in fact his musical idol. Apart from that, Packer is a quasi-sleepwalker in the tradition of Lee Marvin in Point Blank or, more conspicuously, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. Like Cruise’s Bill Hartford, Packer feels alienated from his surroundings and tries to change that by seeking out new extremes. Hartford infiltrates a disturbing orgy cult; Packer shoots his bodyguard in cold blood, who himself seems to project his desires onto lifeless objects, namely his gun, which he calls “Nancy Babich”; he asks a security agent to use her stun-gun on him; he shoots his own hand. The search for new sensations has led him, an allegoric representative of 21st century humankind, onto the inevitable path of self-destruction.
It is difficult to say whether this second review does Cosmopolis any more justice than my first one. The movie is a multi-leveled, complex, and above all fascinating, if not easily accessible exercise in stunningly original filmmaking – even if it is based on a novel. And with it, David Cronenberg once again asserts himself as one of contemporary cinema’s prime agitators, as one of its major artists, by offering a bleak and unique view on the state of a world falling prey to its own creations, both tangible and abstract. In time, the film may find a wider audience. It sometimes takes repeated viewings for the brilliance to show.