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Review: David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis"

Cronenberg pushes towards a talky abstraction in his uncanny, perversely funny and frighteningly insular adaptation of Don DeLillo.

Continuing along a line introduced in last year's A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg pushes his cinema towards a talky abstraction in his uncanny, perversely funny and frighteningly insular adaptation of Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis. Cronenberg's film was the supreme oddity of the Cannes competition, where it had its world premiere: a millennial-9/11-OWS exegesis restraining itself to spare, highly stylized dialogs between a limousine's sole passenger—Robert Pattinson, playing a newly married techno-capitalist billionaire and introduced like Mabuse sitting in his car's techno throne—and a series of employees, fucks and family as the car travels at a snail's pace through Manhattan so that he may obtain, arbitrarily, a haircut across town.

Except, it's clearly not Manhattan—soundproofed to near silence from street noise, cruising so slowly as to produce no bumps in the ride, the back projection behind the windows both artificial and probably not of New York (joining the Resnais and Ruiz to make Cannes 2012 an excellent example of ingenious digital artificiality), these remove almost all semblance to even a partially realistic mise-en-scène. Within this vacuum, the episodic dialogs, each introduced with hard jump-cuts, are all the more honed, isolated, eery and confrontational.

A friend's remark before the Cannes screening that he heard the film was austere called to my mind Straub-Huillet, a reference I thought silly until I saw how Cronenberg, who adapted DeLillo's book himself, put in the forefront of his film words and their delivery—words icy and flush with political import. The subjects of the talks, as well as the mise-en-scène in general, principally dances around the severe abstraction late capitalism has introduced into life—or, at least, into the life of a very rich man, where numbers and screens, his head of security's warnings about threats to his life, and, ultimately, the unrest that percolates through New York as the film goes on, all remains at a distant, intangible remove. The world is reduced to virtual communication and personal relationships to theory, each talk or fuck an intellectual negotiation for the purpose of cerebral play.

One of the film's most magical moments is towards the beginning: Just when we've started to get used to the subtle artificiality of the car ride and the flatness of the “world” outside it, a beautiful blonde woman is seen in the backseat of a cab that pulls up next to the limo. She grabs Pattinson's attention and he immediately opens his car door and enters the cab's—almost as if nonchalantly, unthinkingly, he is able to penetrate a cinema screen, or a fantasy, or, indeed, move from one fantasy to another, from car to car, diner to diner, bedroom to bedroom. These flashes of the fantastic come often—most memorably in the passing funeral for a black religious singer whose procession's path crosses that of the limo, causing Pattinson to weep in grief—yet much of the character of the dialog throughout  seems trite. Superficially these talks seem about the harsh malaise of a rich man seeking unusual pleasures—a prostate exam in the backseat of his moving car while he talks with a female employee nearly brings them both to orgasm; earlier, he insists that Juliet Binoche buy the Rothko Chapel to put in his apartment. This forward superficiality of the script calls to mind the standard surface level of A Dangerous Method's non-surprising-surprise that its bourgeois analyst hero has perverse desires below the surface.

I understand that complaint against Cronenberg's 2011 film, but I also think that this thin surface was just the language the film used (or its milieu had to use) to get at something more sinister and nuanced underneath, debating attitudes towards psychoanalysis to theorize, body and mind, one's thinking and interaction in the world. From science, “real” conventions are created to identify, rationalize and cure all the strangenesses and horror within people, a step beyond the social restraint of public Victorian values, “confirming” them with scientific-materialism to explain and contain anything that might be out of place and perverse in the world.

Cosmopolis follows this technique but ditches the previous film's utilization of mainstream genre conventions—period piece, biopic, demure restraint of drama. Instead, this weird urban voyage provokes an utter sense of deadened unreality, a consistent, minor key cynicism, desperation and pessimism pushed beyond normal dramaturgical development and instead popping out at us, like sculptures, like 3D, forceful, frank and, in the content of each speech, each interaction, confounding in this dual speaking. If you have a strange sensation while watching Cosmopolis, a dreadful remove, it's because you are experiencing the end of the world as theory.

This review originally appeared in a modified form in our coverage for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. 

So glad this is finally, almost here.
An observant piece. Cosmopolis may be the first neorealist movie of the cyber age. It’s fascinating how Cronenberg can cultivate his core themes across such a variety of narrative sources.
“neorealist movie of the cyber age”! Intriguing, intriguing. Yet the book was written a decade ago and the cyber age is even older than that…what’s taken so long?
There may well be a previous example I’m forgetting (or haven’t seen). The Jose Teodor/Adam Nayman piece on the film in Cinema Scope refers to it as “a perverted twist on neorealism, one concerning the exact opposite end of the class specturm — The Bicycle Thief in reverse on chrome-rimmed wheels.” I had read much of the piece (cutting myself of before discussion of the ending, which I’m glad I did) a few weeks before seeing the movie, so while the observation wasn’t fresh in my mind, it may have latently festered. I was also reading through some Bazin at the time, which focused my thoughts a bit, certainly. Bazin defines neorealism in terms of narrative structure more than narrative content; events do not happen due to “dramatic necessity” as they do in conventionally narrative films — the neorealist film “never ‘adjusts’ reality to meet the needs imposed by psychology or drama.” It prioritizes incident over plot. I believe that is a fair description of the narrative structure of Cosmopolis, and while the mannered dialogue and stylized design belie the naturalism we identify with the neorealist movement, it is in that verbal precision that we find, perhaps, some residue of the cyber age. The characters’ dialogue is rehearsed and polished, just as on the internet we can all be who we want to be (how many times have I revised this post?). Like Pattinson’s character, we are at the same time physically isolated and yet connected. We can passively and immediately receive the world in a digital space, just as in his car his character passively receives his news and medical treatment and even sex (with Juliette Binoche’s character — and I think it’s noteworthy that his own reaction to sex is so much more visceral with the bodyguard not in the car that it is with Binoche in the car; so much of the film is concerned with Pattinson’s character trying to break through that isolation and engage with actual physical human experience, and as the film proceeds he sheds any shields he has from the world, from his clothes to his chief bodyguard to his perfect hair to his car and so forth — the protective items proving an obstacle to true experience, just as we can “experience” so much online without engaging with it in the real world). And the “in the car” is key — the car is both his isolation and his connection, much like our computers and tablets and phones are for those of us in somewhat lower economic stratospheres. That the main character is absurdly rich might also violate our neorealist associations, but in that mix of isolation and connection we find that in many ways he is not unlike us, and is perhaps “our” avatar. As their careers progressed, de Sica and Rossellini and Fellini and Antonioni all moved from depicting the plight of the downtrodden to depicting the decadence and isolation of the middle and upper classes; but in today’s world even the “isolated” must struggle to keep the world out (one can imagine a reboot [even our language is digitized] of L’Avventura being about a girl who disappears from Facebook), and the impact of our recent financial failures of the Masters of Universe on the have-nots demonstrates that the fates of the classes are interconnected (though, of course, those in power always find a way to alienate and insulate themselves from the sufferings of the lower rungs). What’s taken so long? Perhaps we had to wait until we learned how connected we all were before we could find a way to relate to (even symbolic) fatcat alienation. Though, if the apparent reaction of my fellow audience members to the film on an opening weekend are any indication, perhaps not. They just wanted a gunshot.
Loved the write up and the conversation about why it took so long for a film like this in this age. Of course, it takes some time to get perspective on a given age, but it has been long enough for awhile now. I wonder if it could be that the rapidity with which things change now has made it feel like we have to wait even longer to gain perspective, that we can’t capture now because it will be different tomorrow anyway. In any case, the film was excellent, and the audience I saw it with wasn’t much better. One woman, alone, left after the first twenty minutes. A Twilight fan, perhaps?

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