TIFF’s From Within – The Films of David Cronenberg Review: Cosmopolis (2012)

By Doug Heller

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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 Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg which runs from November 1st to January 19th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012) is a very odd film.  It mostly takes place in the back of a limo in New York on a crosstown trip from Wall Street to an outer borough for 28-year-old Wall Street whiz-kid Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) to get a haircut.   Sounds simple, but it’s not.  He conducts business from the back of the car and it is in these conversations where we get to know something about Packer.

Not only is he going across town for a haircut, he’s stuck in traffic because the President is in the city and there is a threat on his life, as well as a threat on Packer’s life.  We get updates from his chief of security Torval (Kevin Durand) that are veiled and don’t really have much of an impact on Packer. Neither does the impending bankruptcy of his company.  Many of his conversations hinge on his company’s betting everything against the yuan (China’s currency) from going up again.  He’s losing hundreds of millions of dollars and his personal fortune of billions along with it and he doesn’t really seem to care.

Another stunning thing about Cosmopolis is the revelation that Robert Pattinson is actually a very talented actor.  It’s easy to overlook him due to his wooden performances in the Twilight series, but in fairness, everyone is wooden in those films.

He’s also recently married to an incredibly wealthy woman who he apparently doesn’t sleep with (or hasn’t often) because each of his conversations hinge on his wanting to have sex with her again.  He seems to prize sex with her much more than with other people, because he has sex with two different people during the course of the day, neither of whom are his wife.

What is interesting about Cosmopolis is that it shows us the complete unraveling of Packer’s life in a brief span of around 12 to 14 hours.  His fortune is lost, his marriage collapses (she can smell that he’s been sleeping with others, a recurring conversation between the two as they meet three times during the day) and his life is in danger.  He approaches all of these things with the impassivity of a person who seems to know everything and therefore is impacted by nothing.  He longs for experiences that are new (asking a security guard to stun him with her taser after he’s had sex with her) and seems to like things he doesn’t know.  His arrogance should be off-putting but it isn’t, it’s more that we are witnessing some sort of grand playground scenario with older people instead of children.  Packer is the cool kid who seems to know everything and the people around him are trying to keep or earn his respect.  He has several girlfriends, but only one that he may care about who is cool to him so he acts out to get her attention.  He envies the younger person who is just as cool or maybe cooler but hasn’t broken through yet.  It would be easy to imagine this film set in a school (any school, elementary, middle or high) with the playground as the limo.

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Yet, in so doing, the film would be robbed of its chief asset: the limited set.  By being in a confined area, the conversations and situations are heightened and the formal dialogue is made to sound complacent.  They aren’t talking in any kind of naturalistic fashion; they are speaking in a kind of formalized way that would not sound right if they were in a more open setting.  There are scenes outside of the limo, mostly with Elise (Sarah Gadon) his wife.  These are the scenes he has the least amount of control in and he appears to be at his most uncomfortable.

Cronenberg uses the outside as a realm of danger and uncertainty.  Anywhere outside the limo poses a danger and inside the limo is safe, even while danger swarms around him and the exterior of the limo gets vandalized while he’s inside.  There is a great deal of unrest outside and calm inside.  The calm is, of course, and illusion since everything in Packer’s life is spiraling out of control but it almost seems like he thinks his confidence will make everything work out.

What is most impressive in terms of set is how Cronenberg manages to make the inside of the limo feel unconstrained and everything outside of it claustrophobic.  There is a wide range of motion and freedom inside the car, whereas outside Cronenberg uses tight close shots and seldom gives Parker any room to move at all.  It’s this sensory juxtaposition that makes us want to be back in the limo, the same as Parker.  Inside the limo is control and order, outside is chaos and uncertainty.

Cosmopolis, like most of Cronenberg’s films, is not for everyone.  It’s kind of a tough film because of the way the dialogue is written, but all of the actors do so good a job with it you just kind of fall into its rhythm, like watching or reading Shakespeare.

Another stunning thing about Cosmopolis is the revelation that Robert Pattinson is actually a very talented actor.  It’s easy to overlook him due to his wooden performances in the Twilight series, but in fairness, everyone is wooden in those films.  The trouble is that he really hasn’t been given proper allowances to show us what he can do before this film, and regrettably not many people saw this film.  What Pattinson is able to do with Eric Packer is that he gives off a vibe of false confidence.  This confidence has been imparted to him by others thinking he’s a genius and the astonishing amount of money he’s made in a tremendously brief span of time.  He makes us think he feels he can do anything, but there is an undercurrent of doubt, like this time he knows he’s gone too far but he can’t admit it to anyone.  In Packer, we have a 28-year-old who feels like he’s done everything he can in life so the only thing left to do is die and he intends to do so in remarkable style.

Cosmopolis, like most of Cronenberg’s films, is not for everyone.  It’s kind of a tough film because of the way the dialogue is written, but all of the actors do so good a job with it you just kind of fall into its rhythm, like watching or reading Shakespeare.  Outside of the three actors I names, the film also features stellar performances by Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti.  Cronenberg challenges us to keep up with the conversations that are designed to feel like they happen every day for Packer, and are ultimately a result of him.  Cosmopolis is at once a commentary on capitalism and how it can destroy people and a portrait of a person who rides the waves of the market only to be devoured by it.  It’s brutal, contemplative and offers no answers, only possibilities and refuses to give viewers a solid ending.  In so doing, it becomes more allegorical than literal and leaves you not necessarily wanting more, but interested in what could happen next.

85/100 ~ GREAT. Cosmopolis is at once a commentary on capitalism and how it can destroy people and a portrait of a person who rides the waves of the market only to be devoured by it. It’s brutal, contemplative and offers no answers, only possibilities and refuses to give viewers a solid ending.
I believe film occupies a rare place as art, entertainment, historical records and pure joy. I love all films, good and bad, from every time period with an affinity to Classical Hollywood in general, but samurai, sci-fi and noir specifically. My BA is in Film Studies from Pitt and my MA is in Education. My goal is to be able to ignite a love of film in others that is similar to my own.