Review: Cosmopolis (2012)

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Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon
Director: David Cronenberg
Country: France | Canada | Portugal | Italy
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Cosmopolis is now showing in Canada and opens in US theatres on August 17th

While his last decade has been spent producing works most directors would be proud to count among their canon, David Cronenberg has in a sense diversified from what many consider to be Cronenbergian, moving away from the wince-inducing viscera of The Brood, Videodrome, Crash, and eXistenZ to more typical crime dramas in the form of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. What many saw as a misstep in 2011’s talky psychological drama A Dangerous Method perhaps best highlights the distinguishing factor of the director’s work since the turn of the millennium: his films have been penned by others.

Packer’s singular objective to have his hair cut in his lifelong barbers as the world begins to crumble—socially, financially, even physically—around him would be easy to interpret as an indictment of the 1%’s casual disregard for the suffering of the masses, yet to read the film as this and this alone is to dismiss so much of Cronenberg’s insight into modern life.

Adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis marks Cronenberg’s first screenplay in thirteen years, and an immediate return to the kind of abundant eeriness not seen in his work since the ‘90s. He imbues the story of young billionaire Eric Packer with that same sense of ethereal oddity that surrounds his strongest protagonists, transforming a languorous limousine journey across New York to get a haircut into a surrealistic odyssey connected only in theory to the real world.

Packer’s singular objective to have his hair cut in his lifelong barbers as the world begins to crumble—socially, financially, even physically—around him would be easy to interpret as an indictment of the 1%’s casual disregard for the suffering of the masses, yet to read the film as this and this alone is to dismiss so much of Cronenberg’s insight into modern life. Packer may be the embodiment of capitalistic philosophy, his ludicrous wealth and only passing appreciation of human social structure painting him as an austere personification of big business, but for all his inhumanity there is a running current of life beneath. Cronenberg has always managed to elicit the best from great actors, Jeremy Irons, James Woods, and James Spader each showcasing arguably their best work under his direction. Where Pattinson may seem an unlikely addition to this elite club, he could scarcely be more suited to the role of Packer. Like Packer, Pattinson is more a name than a recognisable personality, a figure all know but few truly understand. In Pattinson’s every glance, every movement, every smile, there is the sense of a man coming to terms with whom and what he is. Packer’s shifting perspective on himself is far more understated than that of the world’s, and in this the true brilliance of both Pattinson and the film itself come to be revealed.

There’s a very deliberate alienating effect to the speech of the characters, particularly that of Packer. His is a distinctly literary patois as dissociated from typical human speech as he is from every other social custom. The arrhythmic flow of the dialogue is jarring, yes, but in such a way as to make every word rich with double-entendre, every vocal intonation steeped in semiotic significance.

Employing for the most part DeLillo’s dialogue verbatim, Cosmopolis nonetheless carries the distinct quasi-horror air of intensity its director is best known for. There’s a very deliberate alienating effect to the speech of the characters, particularly that of Packer. His is a distinctly literary patois as dissociated from typical human speech as he is from every other social custom. The arrhythmic flow of the dialogue is jarring, yes, but in such a way as to make every word rich with double-entendre, every vocal intonation steeped in semiotic significance. Sound is paramount to the film’s effect, the near silence of the limo as it crawls through the frantic streets making all the more pronounced the subtle tones of Howard Shore’s score once eventually they arrive. Instrumental to the many crescendo scenes scattered throughout the film which gradually move from austere removal to involved intrigue, Shore’s work here is the pinnacle of his now three decade-long collaboration with Cronenberg. Equally effective is the work of Ronald Sanders, Cronenberg’s similarly long-term editor, whose transitions regularly follow the posing of a question, the cuts standing in for the answers. To label the film as a dialogue-laden drama is to misrepresent the astounding technical achievements of its team, expertly building apprehension with minimalistic mastery. Its concluding scene is one of the most impeccably mounted of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, an alarmingly uncomfortable cocktail of apical tension, arresting performances, and exploding aggression from all fronts, the music now disregarding all restraint as the cup of animosity at last runneth over.

The defining distinction between Cosmopolis and the rest of Cronenberg’s post-2000 work is this: while any director would be proud to call these films their own, only Cronenberg could have made this movie. Only Cronenberg could have drawn out in so revelatory a way the greatness waiting within Pattinson, only Cronenberg could have dressed up so morally complex and philosophically rich a story in so evident an allegory, only Cronenberg could have distorted the recognisable world in such a way as to make it more real. This is Cronenberg returned to what he does best, delivering a film that stands both as a highlight of this year, and of its director’s work to date. Cosmopolis is not just a reflection of our times, it is a reflection of our lives, a reflection of ourselves and the dark, angry asymmetry of our existence.

[notification type=”star”]92/100 ~ AMAZING. This is Cronenberg returned to what he does best, delivering a film that stands both as a highlight of this year, and of its director’s work to date. [/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • Lynne

    Great review.  It really is a fantastic film and gets even more amazing with each viewing. I find myself quoting lines from it frequently!

  • abbeysbooks

    Well Doyle I am glad you had a turnaround. I see you are blinded by The Cronenberg. Please visit my 70 odd posts on this film, reading through many different literary and filmic referents. One example: returning to his father’s boyhood and his birthplace we have a Proustian journey back In Search Of Lost Time. Time is the invisible glue of the book. The Cronenberg messes that up too. Don’t feel bad though, as no one has really grasped the profoundness of this novel. Pattinson has tried and is still trying, and he is very good even though Cronenberg has cut the “heart” out of the novel to stamp and mark his territory, to “own” this film. Journey to Samarkand – Appointment in Samarra – is another referent as Packer journeys in quarter inches from east to west to meet Death from whom he is fleeing.  Or read the first paragraph of Moby Dick to read Cosmopolis through that great novel of Death. The Cronenberg does not know the difference between capital and cyber-capital. Packer is not a capitalist he is a cyber-capitalist. Speculation. No product. Just numbers coded in air. Like words. 

  • Right… You’re offended that Cronenberg would try to make something of his own of a novel he was adapting to an entirely different form of art? I imagine you must detest Naked Lunch in that case. Sounds to me like you wanted to see what was in the book and absolutely nothing else, which is perfectly fine, but you should really just read the book again instead. Cinema is an entirely different medium, and it’s Cronenberg’s right to shift the story to whatever he wishes to say himself. Your passion for DeLillo’s work is admirable; mine for Cronenberg is just as vivacious. I’ve not read the novel, but it’s nice to know that if and when I do I might get something entirely different out of it than the film delivered. Books and films are different creatures, as are DeLillo and Cronenberg, and they each have their own points to make. Regardless of the novel’s content, this is a magnificent movie.

  • abbeysbooks

    Yes, I know that ready-made sound – bite that the movie and the book are a different species. Have you read the film theorist Bazin? The “literalness” of a book can be changed, but does the filmmaker hold on to the “spirit”?
    I suggest you read some of my readings of Cosmopolis the film. While I was at your place I read some more reviews of other movies. Had I done that before I commented I wouldn’t have bothered. I presented a paper on Cosmopolis, with other academics, career academics I might add (I am not) at St. Vincent’s University in NYC in April. One insightful paper by a young PhD from Vancouver hypothesized whether Cronenberg would stamp it “Cronenberg” which he was correct in predicting.

    The novel is complex. But hey, Cronenberg read it in one sitting and pasted it into film software in 6 days, so I guess his take is understandable.
    I loved loved loved Naked Lunch and I love Burroughs also. Have you read Burroughs Live edited by Sylvere Lotringer? There is one chapter in there on the film Naked Lunch and Cronenberg and Burroughs which is just great. The DVD commentary by Cronenberg for Naked Lunch is the best I have yet heard. Simply wonderful. I had high hopes for Cronenberg doing DeLillo.
    He fucked up bad. He has said repeatedly in interviews that it was not an anti-capitalist movie. That Occupy was not anti-capitalist, that they wanted a piece of the pie. Cronenberg is a political moron. I do not expect that from people who call themselves auteurs and use sound bites from Godard, who is an intellectual, who is politically wise, and who tries not to make commercial films. Cronenberg pretends he does not expect to make kcommercial films and then he trots Rob Pattinson all over the globe to sell his movie. Where’s that at!

    Cronenberg is a faux auteur. There are really good ones around who deserve the name. Like Sauvaire and the way he did Johnny Mad Dog. His first film and the reviews were all breathtakingly appreciative and intellectually aware. You are a newbie at films pretending to be a seasoned reviewer and then sound off when you are called on it.

    Yes I think Pattinson did an excellent job. But the heart okf the book was torn out of it. Cronenberg pissed his name in capital (no pun intended) letters all over it. The box office is going to fix him. sophisticated film goers, sophisticated readers, and traditional Cronenberg fans are not going to like what he did. Neither is the Canadian Film Board. They should give even more money to Brit Marling and her partners and lots less to someone like Cronenberg who once was excellent in his prime, but now is an aging dinosaur. He had his day. It’s over. He does not have the intellectual consciousness and political awareness to reinvent himself. Bye-bye David.

  • abbeysbooks

    Some filmmakers try to ride in on the coat tails of a well known author and/or novel in this case DeLillo. Not to mention the back of Rob Pattinson. Smarmy.

  • Yes thanks, I’ve read Bazin, I’ve seen Johnny Mad Dog, I’ve explored Cronenberg’s work in plentiful depth, and this is one of his most complex films. You’re getting far too hung up in the translation process. Maybe it doesn’t succeed as an adaptation to a fan of the novel, but to a Cronenberg fan like me, and many others I’ve spoken to, it’s immensely satisfying. It exists as its own right, and whatever your own political preferences it needs to be respected as such. Don’t let an affection for a source cloud your judgement of someone else’s take on it. As for casting Pattinson, it’s a matter of budgetary concerns, not to mention the relevance to the actor’s own image that I’ve touched upon above. Cronenberg saw talent waiting to be tapped, and as you’ve agreed it’s there in the film. Don’t understand how you can take issue with the casting, that considered.

  • abbeysbooks

    You have a reading problem. I’m not taking issue with the casting, nor Rob’s performance. I am taking issue with a so-called auteur who has made wonderful experimental films in the past. From those whom greatness is expected …………..to find out his feet are stuck in clay on this one is abysmal. Cyber-capital is our greatest danger, DeLillo has recognized it and used Baudrillard and Nietzsche’s thought on excessive limits to destroy it. To be an auteur and deserving of the name, one needs to be intellectually superior to Hollywood, yes? Have a deeper and wider political consciousness than Hollywood, yes? Aesthetically superior to Hollywood, yes? And the Cronenberg just isn’t anymore on any of these. This is the master of eXistenZ for crissakes!. His son at Cannes ripped off Ballard’s Crash, substituting celebrity viruses for car crashes. Not even a chip off the old block in his better days.

    The problem is he read the book in one sitting and completely misread it. Even down to the “rat” which he called a metaphor and said even “Don” didn’t have a meaning for it. Oh really? It came from Herbert’s poem of A City Under Siege, “A rat became the unit of currency” and DeLillo knew very well this poem as he read it aloud at the first memorial for 9-11. And DeLillo and Herbert both received the Jerusalem Prize one year apart. “Don” knew very well the meaning of the rat. Cronenberg was asked the question by a well read journalist who knew very well DeLillo knew, and wanted to see if Cronenberg did. He didn’t and he fluffed his way through that one also.
    Cronenberg just misread the book. I think if he hadn’t it would have been a much better movie. He read it, did the screenplay, shot it, edited it and took it to Cannes in a year. WTF was his hurry? Pattinson fame?He has said he needs box office cachet to get funding. So Rob was the money person as Viggo and Fassbender have been in the past. Cronenberg cannot get it on his name and never has been able to. But relatively unknown Brit Marling can because she really is an auteur, and an excellent one.

    And now he’s old and still can’t even with his track record. I have some REAL original auteurs, not simulacra, to recommend to you.

    Just ask.

    And I suggest you spend some serious downtime reading my cosmopolisfilm2 on blogspot to see how to do a post modern reading. Of course you wil have to do some studying to be able to do it, but you can read and learn some beginnings from me. I dare you.

  • Hi there. Currently dormant NP writer Frank McDevitt here. First, I’d like to say that the tone of all of your posts has been one of rank condescension that Ronan has handled with considerable grace. Your main problem seems to be that you do a lot of academic citation without any indication that you have any particular thoughts of your own. That’s not analysis, that’s parroting rhetoric. A film critic’s job is, first and foremost, to communicate the experience of the film, to describe what the movie *is*. Ronan does that in every single review he’s ever written.

    You seem obssessed with citing theorists whose ideas match your received academic wisdom, and you seem to have no concept of film as an aesthetic experience. Here it is plain and simple: the aesthetics of film and the aestheticals of literature are so different that they’re nearly antithetical. Literary conceits translate about as well to cinematic conceits as Pictish would translate to Esperanto. It is true that there is grammar to film, as each shot should lead to the next the way words do in a grammatically correct sentence. However, a sentence and a scene are not. The same. Thing. Films that rely heavily on literary or theatrical devices come off clunky because cinema is an art form of its own, and thus needs to be communicated in its own way. Now I’ve not seen the film, nor have I read DeLillo’s novel, so I don’t have anything to say about the quality of either. However, your insistence that Cronenberg is a faux-auteur is, frankly, bull.

    Denying Cronenberg the title of autuer (meaning that he has a distinct authorial/directorial voice and that this voice and perspective shows in his oeuvre) just because you find him heavy handed is silliness. And since you’re giving reccomendations, I’ll reccomend to you that you read Bordwell, Farber, Sarris and Kael if you want to learn a little about the aesthetics of film that goes beyond literary theory 101 buzzwords.

  • abbeysbooks

    Well now, citing this comment of yours, exactly in which order would you place the movie Gone With The Wind? A literal rendition including the spirit and heart of the book.

    See it can be done. And then it becomes a classic. If a book is a classic, and Cosmopolis will be, then if the movie adaptation of its “heart” is there, it will also be.

    Yes I read one text (film, book etc) through another. That way both are illuminated with their strengths and weaknesses. For movie reviews within the present Dominating Discourse, which I think all of your reviews follow, then check out this movie blog from Dublin http://them0vieblog.com/2012/07/18/non-review-review-the-dark-knight-rises/ which
    always manages to get in the number one or close spot of best blog in its category in Ireland. Reading Darren is always an intellectual and aesthetic treat not a hero worshipping of a has been director like Cronenberg. In the above link it is Nolan, who deserves commendation. Yes I really liked Eastern Promises. Because of the wonderful performances. No way is Cronenberg going to control a performance by Viggo. He tooled around Russia to absorb its flavor, a dangerous trip for him considering who he was meeting. His portrait of Freud in Dangerous Method is superlative, perhaps only to a person who has read a lot of Freud. It fitted perfectly with what Lou Andreas Salome said about Freud and Jung in their last public meeting together at the last International Psychoanalytic annual meeting before the second World War. Knightly is a perfect Sabina Spielrein with her contorted faces. Did you know she was Luria’s analyst?

    You are correct that I put different readings together and omit my own opinions. I am tired of reading endless opinions by people who spout on the internet and who are ill educated about what they write about. My goal is to disappear. It seems for you I have done so, so thank you for telling me I have succeeded. I am not being sarcastic at all. I mean this.

  • abbeysbooks

    I’ve read all of Kael and it doesn’t get much better for her time. Have you read Baudrillard on Dead Ringers? Or Crash? Definitely out of the Dominating Discourse. He likes them BTW as do I.

  • I’m not talking about opinions. I’m talking about reasoned analysis. Did I not make that clear? Someone like Jim Emerson or Glenn Kenny knows more than a thing or two about communicating the aesthetic experience of a moving in THEIR OWN way, not through citations of others. That’s not thought, that’s not analysis, that’s not criticism. It’s the worst kind of academic hackwork. 

    Citing sources without fleshing out your own analysis wouldn’t pass muster in an undergrad humanities program, and it doesn’t pass muster when you’re trying to analyze a movie. And for the record, I haven’t read Gone With The Wind, but I don’t think that film is the one you want to hitch your argument on. Filmmakers are not beholden to the novels they’re adapting. The film is their own, not the original author’s. 

    If you wanted Cosmopolis to maintain “the heart” (whatever that means) of the novel, then you should have petitioned for Don DeLillo to direct it. Since we’re talking about adaptations, why not talk about the Shining? Kubrick deviated so much from the book that Stephen King disowned the film. And yet The Shining so perfectly captures gut churning dread while managing to be thematically dense that Stephen King’s later miniseries version looks like child’s play by comparison. Kubrick ignored “the heart” of the Shining and made an incredible film.

    If you want to prove that you’re not ill educated, stop citing sources and condescendingly dropping names, and come up with an analysis that relies entirely on your own thoughts, without a single reference to the thoughts of another writer or theorist. That’s what it means to be educated on a subject.

  • abbeysbooks

    Sorry there’s not a review at your site that is much above mediocre. I told you for superb reviews go to : http://www.them0vieblog.com and here’s his amazing one on *The Dark Knight Rises *which I will certainly see now. Sorry you don’t like intellectual challenge. I also noticed few comment on your site. Why?

  • Are you talking about my reviews for this particular website? 

  • “My goal is to disappear.”

    Boy am I rooting for you to succeed.

  • abbeysbooks

    I have no idea. I read a number of them, and don’t remember. Don’t worry I won’t be back. Relax. You guys react react react.

  • abbeysbooks

    I already said not to worry. I won’t be back. I don’t suffer fools gladly.

  • curioushairedgal

    There is no analysis without sources, everything written in a review is based on some kind of source and every reviewer, including the one above, is ‘reading’ a movie through a source, himself and all he knows, all he has read, seen, heard etc. So there are basically no ‘own’ throughts. It’s simply a matter of either acknowledging the source or not, and that is what the academic studies are about, learning the sources, identifying them and using them to convey one’s opinion, looking through them at other things as through lenses. It is an illusion to think one can read the source, then tell the contents in their ‘own’ words and thus somehow those thoughts become one’s own. THAT is plagiarism of the worst kind coming of as ‘authentic’ knowledge.
    The point with Cosmopolis the book and the movie is that the movie gives a limited version and vision. And I like Croneberg’s oeuvre very much, it’s just that in this case, instead of fully pursuing the complexity and controversiality of the source material, he actually took the conservative path.He didn’t plundge into the unknown, he absorbed it into something familiar to himself. Unfortunately, the market is obviously so saturated with less than mediocre movies and criteria thus affected, that anything Cro does stands out by a kind of mere reflex. Yes, it is his right to treat the source material as he wishes. But that does not mean that he can make it ‘less’, which is exactly what was done here and then get praised for it cause he’s resting on laurels of previous work and reputation. Movie is ‘less’ than the book. In instances where the movie captured the ‘spirit’ of the source material, which is the heart of it, and Shining is a good example, as is Lolita, the movie is not ‘less’, but and addition and expansion of the words on paper. Naked Lunch is a good example of this. Yes, it’s a good movie. But in this day and age, I’m sorry to say, I don’t expect Cro to be good, I expect him to blow me away. And to be much more informed about relevant (and controversial !) things going on in the world around him, such as Occupy. Cause that what an auteur is, a thinker first and foremost.

  • I didn’t say that he SHOULDN’T cite sources or that analysis doesn’t require it, but that’s literally all he was doing. Theoretical constructs are step one of making an argument. Step two is coming to your own conclusions, which is not what he was doing. And believe me, I know how academia works. I’m a grad student. But what he was doing was unacademic, and anyway, film critics don’t necessarily need to be academic to be good film critics, but it doesn’t hurt.
    As I said before, I have absolutely nothing to say about the film since I haven’t seen it nor have I read the book (I read DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD, which was a mistake), so I can’t comment on whether or not the film works as an adaptation. But your assessment of Cronenberg as an auteur is perplexing to me. Does a filmmaker not have ideas about something if their work isn’t sufficiently politicized? I’d say Cronenberg has plent of ideas. Ideas about sex, death, bodies, media, and the way to represent those through the art of film. Ideas about aesthetic and emotion are still ideas.

  • curioushairedgal

    You know how some people order the same meal when at a restaurant. They play it safe, and it’s not so much about liking that meal, but about just going for the known. That’s kinda the issue here. Yes, Cro has ideas, and some of his ideas were wonderfull and special and original and groundbreaking. With Cosmo, he was looking for the meal he knows and has eaten million times before, disregarding the rest.There must be a prof among yours who is set on getting the students’ feedback in a way s/he considers appropriate and only in that way. Frustrating and limiting and deadly for students’ creativity.
    In a way, Cro did what his Eric Packer did, he kept himself within the familiar, he made himself into an authority not to be questioned.
    Why was reading Underworld a mistake? Why not read Cosmopolis? It is De Lillo’s best, only that will probably be understood when he’s gone.Give it a chance, an open mind, research it a bit, seymourblogger has dedicated an impressive amount of time and energy to its marvelous complexity. It is an important book,a life’s work, as a teacher, all I can do is suggest that you discover it yourself. Then you’ll know more.

  • abbeysbooks

    This is impressive. Thank you. I feel validated. Completely.

  • xulux

    If you think Cosmopolis is about Packer going to get a haircut, not only did you miss the boat, you never even made it to the pier.

    I will make bold to suggest you’ve missed the point about DeLillo. He is, and always has been, an EXPERIMENTAL writer. That is what confounds people. He is a poet who only writes novels. That’s what bakes our collective noodles. If you want your narrative fed to you one spoonful at a time, like oatmeal, there are plenty of horrendous novels you can read that don’t require chewing.

    When you read novels written by poets, you wil get moments of explosive linguistic brilliance, like in Stephen Dobyns, Steven Millhauser. And as experimental writers go, DeLillo is our Italo Calvino.

    The cause of all this dissonance is that a director of Cronenberg’s stature adapted a novel by one of the most important writers of the last 100 years and it fell short.

  • abbeysbooks

    Wow! Yes it did.

  • curioushairedgal

    It is not worth mentioning. It is your work that’s impressive.

  • abbeysbooks

    I can tell by this you don’t read Foucault or Baudrillard. Your loss.

  • If you think I think Cosmopolis is about Packer going to get a haircut, you’ve not read my review. As regards “missing the point” about DeLillo, my knowledge of him as an author doesn’t enter into it. I’m not here to discuss novels, nor to decipher what portion of their thematic intent made it into film versions. I’m here to pass judgement on Cronenberg’s film which—as a film, in my opinion—is a resounding success. If you disagree, that’s wonderful: I’d love to debate why. I’m sorry to say that I’m not interested in your reading of the book; my passion lies on the screen, not the page.

  • Such breathtaking presumption based on eight words of mine. I liked you better when you seemed to have the integrity of your word about not coming back.

  • abbeysbooks

    I didn’t go back. I just replied through disqus. So I just came back Virtually. Through disqus I did see some amazing replies to you though. How’s that working for you. Not a question. Don’t answer.