To say that a David Cronenberg film represents a “departure” from the director’s oeuvre is to make a profoundly empty statement; Cronenberg never shies away from trying something new. The fact that he has chosen to follow up last year’s A Dangerous Method—a period biopic about Siegmund Freud and Carl Jung—with the narratively unconventional, difficult-to-sit-through talkfest Cosmopolis is not all that surprising. And while it’s difficult to endorse the film on anything other than formal grounds since much of it is, by design, opaque and meaningless, it’s also impossible to dismiss Cosmopolis as some sort of creative misfire. Cronenberg certainly gives in to all types of self-indulgence throughout the film, but he also manages to poignantly encapsulate this country’s existential crisis after our devastating financial collapse.
This tonal precision is especially apparent if you compare the world of Cosmopolis to The Dark Knight Rises, another film about the post-Occupy world, or at least post-Occupy New York City. While the latter relies on clunky, prop-filled set pieces and overblown scenes of class-based anarchy (throwing old ladies in fur coats out into the streets, for instance) to get its ultimately conservative point across, Cosmopolis portrays anarchy and senseless violence as almost mundane: the primal bubblings of an entire culture’s repressed carnal urges all come to a head in a single afternoon. In the same way that the star of Cosmopolis, young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), views sex, food, money and death as not much more than basic necessities devoid of real significance, the film itself depicts social upheaval dispassionately, but with sardonic wit.
It is the quest for this missing archetypal significance which leads Eric on a daylong journey across town, ensconced in his futuristic limo. As he progresses at a snail’s pace, he is joined in his silent, rolling palace by guests whose philosophical musings grow more and more bizarre as the film unspools. Juliette Binoche and Jay Baruchel make appearances, but Samantha Morton is the apex of the film’s absurdity. She introduces herself as Eric’s “chief of theory” but still peppers her logorrhea with a mantra of disavowal, constantly saying, “I do not understand this.” As protestors toss dead rats and try to overturn the car, she prattles on for several minutes about the meaning of time and the morality of capitalism. It’s by turns amusing, suffocating, and nonsensical. Something like listening to a lecture on Derrida underwater.
After being rejected by his sexless, robotic wife (Sarah Gadon), Eric finally finds what he’s looking for: catharsis. Introduce Paul Giamatti, playing an ex-employee of Eric’s money management empire bent on assassination. Theirs is the only exchange in the movie that actually hums with any resonance of real meaning; even though their dialogues are festooned with self-reflexive malarkey, they slowly manage to spiral their way towards something definitive. Of course [spoiler alert!], Cronenberg denies us our catharsis of seeing this encounter all the way through, preferring to leave his viewers in a state of perpetual limbo, like Eric in all but the final moments of the film.
While there are a few moments of squeamish body horror in Cosmopolis (the centerpiece perhaps being Eric’s daily prostate exam), precious little would give it away as a Cronenberg picture apart from its inscrutable male protagonist and air of claustrophobic nihilism. Recalling Videodrome (1982) in particular, Eric’s gradual realization of just how deranged both he and the world are mirrors James Wood’s descent as Max Renn, renegade TV producer. Both characters are totally unscrupulous and only interested in fulfilling their own desires. However, the similarities between the two pretty much end there. While Max ends up being physically co-opted by the nefarious corporate conspiracy behind Videodrome, ultimately turning against it and killing himself, Eric faces no conspiracy except the absurdity of the super-rich and the existential void of a possible post-capitalist future.
While Max is assaulted by meaning on all sides (even in his dreams and hallucinations), Eric can’t seem to find meaning anywhere—not in sex, not in marriage, not even in the act of murdering one of his security guards on a whim. It is only in the chaotic filth of Giamatti’s dwelling that Eric finally brushes up against mortality, when he impulsively puts a bullet through his own hand. With that he finally tastes something real, something that can’t be explained through currency fluctuations or charted on a luminous screen. Afterwards, he seems to have come close to finding his catharsis. It’s a truly Cronenbergian moment: only through the messy realities of physical flesh can the most arcane, post-postmodern questions be even partially answered.
However, even as his film gestures toward a definitive, almost humanist statement, Cronenberg undercuts himself. When Eric, a propos of nothing, asks Giamatti’s character what having an asymmetrical prostate “means,” Giamatti looks at him with both tiredness and pity, as though Eric were a querulous child. “Nothing,” he says firmly, “it means nothing.” Obviously, this is an epitaph for the whole film—a far cry indeed from “Long live the new flesh.”
By Lita Robinson