12:25 pm Aug. 17, 2012
Like the Ulysses of late-capitalist Manhattan, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) just wants to get across town.
With a couple billion, perhaps, to match each of his 28 years, Eric begins the single day that unfolds over the course of Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s coolly hypnotic, innerspace odyssey through a city of submersions and subversions, craving naught but his favorite barber’s touch. His kingdom for a haircut, you might say.
Set in a world with the embalmed oddity of a junk food dream—but grimly upscale junk food; kale chips, say, and artisanal ginger beer—Cosmopolis’s series of infelicitous events and frustrated encounters make it increasingly plain: his kingdom and more it shall be.
Our man has other, more immediate appetites, and spends much the traffic-jammed journey satisfying them. Eric is not the liquid platinum android we know from the ‘80s assortment of psychos and sociopaths gathered under the comic bookish umbrella of “masters of the universe.” Though he is immaculately groomed, speaks in the clipped, metro-gnomic sentences transposed directly from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of the same name (if its wry, re-lipped wit is drawn out, much of the source material’s mitigating interiority hidden behind the kabuki scrim of Pattinson’s face) and spends most of the film seated at the Sharper Image throne in his thin white line of a limousine, surrounded by filliping screens and private courtiers, we also watch Eric eat (“something hot and chewy” is his weirdly suggestive breakfast request), have sex (all of it enviably, if bizarrely, carnal) and indulge in the ultimate delicacy of self-destruction.
At terminal odds with his animal drives is Eric’s obsession with data and order. He made his name charting market cycles like the Wall Street Maharishi; insistent upon the world’s ruthless knowability, he created “horribly, sadistically precise” analytical tools supposedly derived from patterns found in nature. On this day Eric is in the determined process of shorting an impossibly inflated yuan, as if daring the gods interfere with binary perfection.
And yet all along he makes attempts, of varying pathos and absurdity, to break back into his body, and his story. “Look, I’m trying to make contact in the most ordinary ways,” he tells his oddly ubiquitous new bride, an unblinking blonde heiress played by Sarah Gadon. Eric tends to narrate such interactions, giving DeLillo’s habit of ending sentences with flat interrogatives (You smoke since when. You look like what. You do this why.) a purposeful twist: it leaves no room for reply. Pattinson’s alien impassivity belies his character’s hungers; it would appear he is a cipher by nurture, not nature. Even so, actual emotion, when it finally erupts—during the funeral procession for a beloved, “authentic” rapper—appears ridiculous, almost monstrous.
So the alpha Aspie is also a poetry (and hip-hop) fan and a pocket semiotician. Colleagues, including Eric’s “chief of technology” (Jay Baruchel), speak in fear of his intellectual derision. But how much of Eric’s intelligence derives from a stunted curiosity of spirit and how much is merely an extension of his will to acquisition is a question that dangles like the unlit cigarette from his Russian security man’s (Kevin Durand) mouth in a chillingly precipitous moment.
The smooth discomfiture of that moment and much of the surrounding ride is partly a function of timing. Set in 2000, by now much that occurs in Cosmopolis has been echoed by the 2008 economic collapse, the implosion of the Madoff empire, Occupy Wall Street, and Rupert Murdoch taking a cream pie to the face (Mathieu Amalric, playing a world-renowned prankster pie artist, appears like a quick needle stick to the rear to do the honors here).
And so we are in the position of seeming to have caught up to DeLillo, and his distinctly hybridized hero. There is a studied, vestigial quality to the high modernist bent of Eric’s taste: a quickie with an art dealer (Juliette Binoche, radiant with longing) segues to a pouty discussion of whether Eric can relocate the Rothko chapel into his apartment; he quotes the poet Zbigniew Herbert (and the novel’s epigraph), “a rat became a unit of currency.”
But here the burden of postmodern self-consciousness—exemplified by Eric’s paranoia that the infosphere has effectively outpaced his experience of reality; the ether eventually produces a “credible threat” to his life—has made the antihero’s existence untenable. (The end credits roll over extreme close-ups of Rothko canvases, further abstracting his abstracts.)
Watching Cosmopolis one remains distinctly, almost pleasurably aware of the fact that they said none of this could be done. Though many—including the author himself—have tried, this is the first adaptation of a DeLillo novel to make it to the screen. More than Cronenberg’s stripped down de-humanism, the novel’s sensory delirium (especially with regard to all those screens and their fragmented reports) call to mind the neo-impressionist showmanship of David Fincher circa Fight Club. Cronenberg’s adaptation feels remarkably faithful for departing from all that. Distilled to what he has described as the essence of good cinema—interesting faces saying interesting things—Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis expresses something new and necessary about the book, which is to say about limits, the gaps in what can be known, both within and between us.
Once done of course the impossible is suddenly within imminent, obvious reach. Precision casting has much to do with the success of scenes confined either to a car or the similarly vacuum-sealed bubble Eric inhabits elsewhere (an Arri Alexa D.V. camera and some pretty hokey green screen effects contribute to the feeling of a digital para-world). Breakfast with his wife feels like a postmodern marionette show staged in an otherwise bustling diner; that visit to the barber plays out like an incantatory choral poem. Long takes give dimension to non sequitur strings of dialogue, with Pattinson under particular pressure. For the most part, and especially in a creepy-hot sex scene with a bodyguard (Patricia McKenzie), he projects a commanding, slow-burning detachment.
Along with Binoche, Amalric, and Emily Hampshire as a harried colleague and sudden object of transcendental desire, Samantha Morton appears as Eric’s “chief of theory,” a philosopher gypsy unmoved by the vicious economic protest that traps her in Eric’s limo, the better to max out her line on the free market’s imperturbable ecosystem. In her telling, even anarchy such as we know it—sloganeering and rat-dangling and the odd self-immolation—only cleanses and renews the market. It’s necessary but not original. Even Eric’s fate is just part of this season’s purge.
DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is quite pointedly New York, where the world became a city and a city became the world. A place where eye contact is “a delicate matter. A quarter second of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational.” Where a single gunshot doesn’t bring you to the window, not given “noise all the time and the dead-ass drift of your personal urban anomie.” Not especially if it did you the “moonlit favor” of ending a nearby basketball game’s relentless spanks at the concrete.
If no less cynical, Cronenberg’s more universalized version, ironically, is also more human by default. Never moreso than during its final, fluid-soaked confrontation between Eric and a proverbial disgruntled former employee played, in a breathtaking turn, by Paul Giamatti. (Though he skips some of the book’s more outrageous moments and depicts Eric’s mid-meeting prostate exam rather demurely (!), Cronenberg feels returned to himself by a gunshot wound he renders as vividly as DeLillo describes it: “all scald and flash … pervertedly alive in its own little subplot.”) Benno, as the ex-employee calls himself, maintains a fiefdom no less insulated with private obsessions than Eric’s, and Cronenberg masters the scene with the same play of gesture and framed intonation he puts to tightly dramatic use throughout.
Benno complains of being invisible where Eric is impenetrable. “You’re not a reflective man,” Benno says. In fact they both suffer from a certain translucence. In uniting Eric with his belated other half, Cosmopolis presents us not with the source of modern nihilism but two of its adaptations which, combined, offer a prototypical specimen of Person 2.0.
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