Once upon a time, David Cronenberg made engaging visceral films filled with physiology and technology’s connection with the human form. From Videodrome to eXistenZ and The Fly to Crash he has developed a talent like no other and created an oeuvre in which he is almost unanimously respected. His last two films, 2011’s A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis have seen the veteran director taking a new and not entirely well-advised career move. Both of Cronenberg’s latest are a gargantuan step away from his past success and replace the primeval with the meditative. His films are now filled with talking; the first being adapted verbatim from a play and Cosmopolis is a word for word rendition of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name. The old sage is beginning a new chapter in the winter of his career, an ambitious attempt, one that he is yet to refine.
DeLillo’s book has never been considered as the kind easily adapted to film and from the outset it is easy to see why. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a 28-year old billionaire assets manager who needs a haircut. Instead of paying for one of the many mobile options available to him, he has decided to take his expensive stretch limo across town to visit a barber he frequented before he was rich. That is pretty much it. Of course there is much more contained in the dialogue and subtext of Packer’s journey but the action is almost exclusively confined to the inside of his hyper-futuristic, technology laden limousine. The limo itself is a metaphor for Packer’s journey. It begins immaculate, untouched but slowly disintegrates from attacks from the outside just as its passenger finds his vast fortune crumbling due to an unfortunate investment in the Chinese Yuan, one that is subtly indicated as being misanthropic Packer’s purposeful decision.
The film is immediately claustrophobic and when Packer does leave the limousine for a cafe or to the barbers, the scene still feels constricted. This is an accomplishment beautifully echoing the world Packer lives in. As he rides along the wide Manhattan streets a dreamlike version of reality appears in the windows gradually becoming more real as the film goes on. He is walled off from society and the ‘real people’ outside are only available to him in an imaginary sense as he is so removed from the ordinary experience. His world is lit screens of information flowing, changing every second and he desperately tries to keep up with the overly complex data. Cronenberg creates a glowing, glaring facade to Packer’s comfortable ride but it is possible that that is all there is.
DeLillo’s dialogue is stilted, people do not talk like this in everyday situations but that is exactly its function. These people are all distant from what others experience and are not capable of the same emotions. Even Packer’s relatively normal wife Elise (Sarah Gadon), who shows signs of depth and compassion, conducts herself with a discernibly cold exterior. Reactions are guarded and stunted, DeLillio is making a statement and Cronenberg brings his words to life. These empty, greedy people are those who made their millions, caused a financial catastrophe and walked away unscathed, although DeLillo places the redemption on a knife edge. Pattinson excels like never before embodying the barrenness and callous nature of Packer. As he meets business associates in the limo, he treats everyone the same whether he is taking their advice straight up, having sex or receiving a prostate exam. Everyone has their use for Packer and there is no reason to get emotionally involved. Business consultant Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) is frigidly conferred with during sex and dismissed once she is no longer of use, a role she seems completely content with.
As always, one of Cronenberg’s strengths is the images he burns into the mind’s eye. It would be impossible to leave this film without remembering the opulent illustrations he conjures. The tube like interior of the limo is filled with classic Cronenberg physiological tension as Packer receives his rectal exam and talks with an advisor. He stares her straight in the face, beads of sweat forming on his pristine brow. She holds a water bottle between her legs, squeezing it tightly as the two discuss work and life. Paul Giamatti’s vengeful ex-employee Beno Levin lives in a sweaty apartment, dystopian and deranged; he brings a welcome change of pace near the end of the proceedings.
Cronenberg certainly makes Cosmopolis more his film than he did with the stagnant A Dangerous Method but it faces the same problems. It is an achingly slow moving affair with dialogue so inhuman it may take an automaton to sit completely still through the entire piece. The film verges dangerously close to losing attention entirely, it is after all, two hours of talking. Though the dialogue covers societal, economic and existential questions in the harmonious way only great sci-fi can, it remains to be seen that if Cronenberg put even more of himself into a film just what he could achieve with such exquisite source material. Potentially excellent exchanges are bogged down with frustratingly alien and pretentious dialogue where the director needed to step in and inject some energy.
Ostensibly the director is moving in a more intelligent direction but in truth he is seeking a new vision that he is afraid to put his own stamp firmly on. Cosmopolis feels compromised; seeking to stay faithful to the source material has meant the film feels very much like a book but with the walls of celluloid constricting the imagination. More scenes like the prostate exam are needed for this work to become something more than just interesting. It is possible that Cronenberg will get it right next time, with Pattinson as a new muse, could there be some excellent collaboration in the works? Unlike Pattinson, Cronenberg is entering the twilight of his career and is running out of time, but there is the feeling that there is another great work to come from him, maybe this new approach will unveil his masterpiece. Watch this space.
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