Editor’s Note: Cosmopolis opened in Argentina on November 8th. For an additional perspective on the film, read Ronan Doyle’s review.
He wants to get a haircut, a physical process that removes equally physical hair. Eric Packer, though, does not live in a universe of physical things. He is a man of the digital age, of intangible cyber money, of incomprehensible speculative flight, of bits and numbers, of utterly fantastic wealth, fantastic both because of its sum and its unreality. He interprets the market and its rollercoaster swings, bets against the yen, borrows impossible amounts of the Chinese currency, indebting himself to financial ruin because his dogmatic calculus tells him the yen will fall, except it never does. But what he wants is a haircut, and not just anywhere, but in the barbershop of his infancy, where his dead father used to take him. Weathered by time, the barbershop, like the haircut, is very physical; it has a history, not just for Eric, who remembers his youth, but in and of itself. The barbershop is a scarred, aging place where people have lived and breathed, and where, besides a lonely swivel chair, stands a plastic toy chair shaped like a car and intended for children, a joke version of the idiotic limousine – pristine, ultramodern, without history – on which Eric travels through hectic, riotous New York to cut his hair.
Cronenberg’s method for adapting DeLillo’s text is startling in its savage simplicity. He has retained most of the book’s dialogue while excising many of the intervening descriptive passages…
Cronenberg’s method for adapting DeLillo’s text is startling in its savage simplicity. He has retained most of the book’s dialogue while excising many of the intervening descriptive passages, so that the film is indeed “talkier” than its source material. He has even made the film more claustrophobic than the novel, altering scenes that originally took place outside the ubiquitous limousine, like the meeting with art consultant Didi Fancher, and transferring them inside. In some cases, this confinement might have been due to budgetary constraints: in the novel, Eric’s conversation with Kozmo Thomas happens amidst a massive, vapidly multicultural, kitsch procession, which would have been a production nightmare for Cronenberg.
Whatever the pragmatic logic behind these changes, the expressive emphasis is obvious: Eric, played cold and precise by Robert Pattinson, is trapped in a stream of incessant dialogue and technophilic interior design, crushingly surrounded by the shining monitors and expensive upholstery of his elongated ride. Outside his polarized windows, he watches the urban chaos unfold in what looks suspiciously like a back-projected dream. He stares at society as if it were a distant manifestation, a flat composition of digital fiction, as if his windows did not open outwards to New York, but shone inwards, like one of his television and computer monitors, transmitting images from the far side.
Reciting dialogue by DeLillo can be a challenging task. His characters talk like Martians or wailing spirits, perpetually separated by gulfs of incomprehension. They attempt to bridge the gaps between them, but all conversing parties end up speaking to themselves, elaborating rhetorical solutions to their innermost fears and intuitions. It works on the page, but dictating their musings out loud can be an exercise in awkwardness. An otherwise noteworthy experimental documentary, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, about media portrayals of airline hijackings across four decades, used several dialogue excepts from DeLillo’s Mao II as narration. In theory, the appropriation was fitting: in a film about mediated subjects, the director’s ideas are thus mediated by the words of an author, whose words, in turn, are mediated by one of his characters. But the effect is far from pleasant. The narrator’s delivery is too earnest, as if he were relating some incontestable truth, an expert analysis on the matter at hand. But the rantings of a DeLillo misanthropist cannot be understood at face value, because they’re affected by an operatic extremeness, a self-conscious, self-defeating grandiloquence.
Cronenberg steps over this hurdle by abandoning any attempt at dramatic harmony. His previous films, like Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method, though self-conscious in their own ways, also operated as straight-faced dramas working within conventional boundaries. Cosmopolis, on the other hand, is unashamedly alien and strange, and its actors seem to be sleepwalking. There are breaks and fissures in every interaction, an ongoing comedy of communicational errors. Instead of smoothing over the oneiric rhythm of DeLillo’s dialogue, Cronenberg emphasizes it, deepens it, has its uncanny weirdness spread all over Pattinson’s face.
Cosmopolis, on the other hand, is unashamedly alien and strange, and its actors seem to be sleepwalking. There are breaks and fissures in every interaction, an ongoing comedy of communicational errors.
Most characters in this film talk and behave like computer apps, muttering their electric speech around New York: Kevin Durand, as Eric’s chief of security, posturing like the fossilized remain of an extinct action-hero archetype; Samantha Morton, as Eric’s theoretical advisor, lecturing like a frigid, lifeless vessel of pseudo-philosophy; Sara Gadon, as Eric’s wife, repeating meaningless sentences with no connoted feeling or intention; and always Robert Pattinson, over-articulating DeLillo’s phrases, fondling his lines like desired breasts, every word from his mouth never entirely his own, as if it had been telegraphed to his vocal chords.
Aesthetically, the movie is uninspiring. There is no equivalence, in terms of film language, for DeLillo’s dystopian imagery. The narrative structure, faithful to the novel and essentially a succession of vignettes, becomes insistently repetitive as the actors slowly and detachedly drone along the script, striving for a disquieting and colorless effect that conveys the perfect tone but is also, at times, horribly boring. There is little visual experimentation within the limousine, mostly an assault of shot reverse shot set-ups. Cronenberg seems workmanlike, efficient, dull, where DeLillo strove for an awe-struck, prophetic atmosphere, a flow of poetic incantation. And yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm, Cronenberg’s apparent indifference makes for a successful adaptation. Cosmopolis, the film, is not necessarily invigorating. I was never enamored with it. But I was intrigued, hypnotized by a barely perceptible wrongness, the sense of something being out of place, as if an extraterrestrial had tried making a movie. Cronenberg avoided the novel’s most melodramatic, insane heights, abridging them altogether (the thunderous procession, the swamp of naked movie extras…), and opted instead to string a series of joyless conversations, uninterrupted by fugitive visual poetry, locked in by words, and staged in what could be a lunar base illuminated by holographic vistas of New York. This aesthetic dryness, this dearth of means and cinematic technique, however, serves to unhinge the film further, make it queerer. As if it were a conservative, risk-free prestige movie, but irradiated, disarticulated, decomposed, laughing at its own specter.
[notification type=”star”]73/100 ~ GOOD. Cronenberg avoided the novel’s most melodramatic, insane heights, abridging them altogether (the thunderous procession, the swamp of naked movie extras…), and opted instead to string a series of joyless conversations, uninterrupted by fugitive visual poetry, locked in by words, and staged in what could be a lunar base illuminated by holographic vistas of New York.[/notification]