David Cronenberg is filmmaker who never throws anything away. Sprawled across his mannered and uncomfortable adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2012) is the history of his film career, even the weird body horror with which the director made his name. It's a return to form, of sorts, but then, Cronenberg is almost never very far off model. Even in outliers like The Dead Zone and A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg's private universe is recognizable. Cosmopolis, is Cronenberg's first screenplay in over a decade, which tends to distill his obsessions into a more concentrated brew. Cosmopolis is certainly perverse.
The plot of Cosmopolis is simple: billionaire asset-manager wunderkind Eric Packer gets it into his head to get a haircut. He is driven across town during a bad traffic day. The President is also in town, a rap star's funeral snarls traffic even more, and there is unrest afoot as spontaneous anti-capitalist demonstrations erupt in Packer's path. For his part, Packer is insulated inside the safety of his stretch limo, where he conducts all kinds of business with characters he meets on his journey: his glacial wife, the art dealer he's fucking on the side, a kid technocrat, a financial guru, his doctor, his head of operations. All the while, Packer's fortune is evaporating as a bet against the Yuan goes south. It's clear as the movie unreels that Packer's quirky desire to go to all that trouble for a haircut is a journey into a downward spiral. There are credible threats on his life. He seems to be driving to greet them.
I haven't read the novel on which Cosmopolis is based. I am reliably informed that this is another instance of Cronenberg taking on an "unfilmable" book, as he did with Crash and Naked Lunch. Of this, I have no knowledge. What I do know, however, is that whatever it was that drew the director to the novel, it gets filtered through his sensibility so thoroughly that it becomes Cronenberg's own world. A catalog of the director's signature tropes finds its way into the warp and weave of this movie. The director's horror of our own physicality is in full force in this movie, both in the fragility of our bodies and in the body's abnormalities. You also have an examination of identity through sexual behavior. Both of these themes are incorporated into the film's best scene, in which Packer has a conversation with Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire), a repressed functionary, while receiving a prostate exam. Packer, it seems, has an assymetrical prostate. This scene functions like sex (it comes after a bout of rear entry sex between Packer and his art dealer, Didi Francher (Juliette Binoche), and I can only assume that Cronenberg is having a lark at the expense of star Robert Pattinson's usual fans. The rear entry sex in cars should be familiar to longtime observers, too. Cronenberg's occasional car fetish is there in the very first shot of the film in which he dusts off the methods he used to film the drag racers in Fast Company and applies same gaze to the film's phallic stretch limos. He once again films sex mostly like car crashes.
Libido and frustrated libido is a theme in this movie, of course. Packer is the prince of the universe, but his wife won't let him fuck her. Theirs is a marriage designed to unite fortunes. He takes this frustration out on his female acquaintances. There's a hint that the financial markets rise and fall with the cocks of big time financiers. This amuses me no end. Sex is the only thing with meaning for Packer, it seems, perhaps because sex with his wife is the only thing denied to him. Nothing else matters. Money? Packer doesn't seem to care. Politics? He's indifferent to The President. Art maybe, but art isn't enough. Packer is a right sociopath who feels nothing and moves through life as a zombie until he's on the brink of ruin. Only then does he seem to come alive, but he doesn't come alive enough. Near the end, Packer shoots his own hand to see if it makes a difference to his world and his fate. He feels nothing beyond a little pain. His existential crisis finds him spiraling into nothingness.
There's a hint of eschatology in this film, too, and of a kind of end of art as end of the world. The all too brief scenes of the Occupy-style protests outside the bubble of Packer's limo have a hint of the apocalypse, where rats become currency, and a huge rat, styled like a Chinese mummer's dragon waves overhead. In one scene, the head of the IMF is murdered on television, Videodrome-style. In this world, terror and violence are performance that only has meaning if there's an audience, whether real or mock (one of Packer's "threats" is a man who throws cream pies in the faces of the rich and powerful; he's surrounded by orbiting photographers). Earlier in the film, Packer contrived to buy the Rothko chapel, even though it's not for sale and "belongs to the world." Even art can be corrupted by capitalism, it seems. Significantly, both of the (excellent) credit sequences of Cosmopolis emphasize art rather than finance or technology.
This is a fairly claustrophobic film. Its two main settings are the high-tech interior of the limo (where Packer is even shown to piss), and the wreckage of capitalism where Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), Packer's "credible threat," squats. It could be filmed as a play, actually. It certainly has the kind of abstracted dialogue of a stage play. Benno plans to kill Packer and has a ridiculous gun to do it. Packer judges Benno's threat as if he's an art critic in the film's long closing verbal duel. Benno, it should be noted, is the film's only character who gives an unmannered performance. He has removed himself from the game. He sees the flaw in the system, its "assymetrical prostate," as it were, and he can't bear it.
To an extent, this reminds me of core Cronenberg movies, and you'll pardon me for intruding on my narrative of Cosmopolis for an annoying personal anecdote. I used to name Cronenberg as my favorite director back when I was a gore-loving horror kid. I've seen every one of his features since The Brood in the theater (I saw The Brood and Scanners both at the drive in), and Cronenberg's evolution as a filmmaker, moving ever so slightly away from a cinema of viscera to a cinema of the mind has mirrored my own evolution as a film viewer. But that evolution, that relationship, hasn't always been pleasant. I've loved the experience of watching Dead Ringers and Crash and M. Butterfly, but they are all films that function like a slap in the face, that confront my own sense of self and sense of the world in prickly, unpleasant ways, and even though I relish the experience of watching them, I often don't want to see his individual films again afterward. In the last few years, however, this shock to the system has been absent. Whatever their relative merits, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method have been lacking that jolt. I didn't walk away from those films, as I have in the past with the director's other films, with my face burning, wondering what it was that I had just seen. Cosmopolis probably isn't as good a film as A History of Violence or even Eastern Promises, but whatever. It has that charge of old Cronenberg that those films lack. It has that clinical unpleasantness, that cold brutality, that distant examination, that formidable intellect. And I don't know that I want to see it again any time soon.