Monday, August 20, 2012

Cosmopolis: Day of the Rat

Directed By: David Cronenberg
Written By: David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Don DeLillo
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruschel, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti.
Director of Photography: Peter Suschitzky, Editor: Roland Sanders, Production Designer: Arvinder Grewal, Original Music: Howard Shore and Metric

Correction: The article has been updated to reflect a correction in the protagonist's name. It is Eric Packer, not Parker.

            Cosmopolis, the latest and perhaps best film in over twenty years from Canadian director David Cronenberg, begins with an epigraph from a Zbigniew Herbert poem: “a rat became the unit of currency." Herbert’s poem “Report from a Besieged City,” is a strange report from an apocalyptic nightmare. His lines are short and curt in presentation but extremely visual. Are we reaching these apocalyptic times? Perhaps, but not in ways we might be able to see, which is why Cosmopolis, adapted from the Don DeLillo novel, may be the most essential film of the year: an absurdist parable about the influence of technology on capitalism and its effect of the human psyche and body, all which ascribes meaning to the meaninglessness.

            Cosmopolis is a pure intellectual work with perhaps intense philosophical tenants at its core, but its also intensely funny, thrilling, and hypnotizing that it’s a film that can truly be enjoyed as a thrill ride. I was somewhat wary of the film going in—my only experience with DeLillo was his highly acclaimed novel White Noise, where I found his prose more grating and self-satisfactory than anything else. But perhaps removed from my own voice and into the highly controlled voices of Cronenberg’s actors, DeLillo’s words leap from the screen, his complete control of language aware at every moment, making for many laugh out loud moments. Cronenberg’s keen sensibility creates a world full of artifice, one that themes and ideas of his film (his first screenplay in over a decade) and truly expands and builds them on ways that create his own space. To an average viewer, Cosmopolis might look shlocky and almost lazy, but to me, I found every step to be a fascinating commentary on what is surely a film that will shock a select group to their core.

            Fueled by a techno-fused score (an astounding collaboration between Howard Shore and Metric), Cosmopolis starts on an ordinary day as Eric Packer (Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson, restrained, cold, and delectably brilliant), a multi-billionaire Wall Street guru who decides to take his white limo across town for a haircut. He sees no need to stay in the office to work; his limo, with its glowing neon blue computer screens, is all he needs. Space is an illusion after all in a world where technology analyzes the patterns of money as its traverses through its unique patterns. Throughout the day, he meets with people as his limo slowly drudges through the midtown Manhattan traffic (the haircut is a McGuffin it seems). The windows beyond the limo show off an artificial world (it’s supposed to be New York, but it was clearly shot in Toronto) that is all but meaningless except for the people Packer picks up along the way.

            And suddenly when an attack on a American official sends the Chinese Yuan skyrocketing, Parker must make sense of this anomaly, and in a way sees himself as the equivalent reaction—the rise must mean his own downfall. Cosmopolis is essentially about the human psyche, and because this is Cronenberg the body as well, and its relationship the technology of capitalism. His films have often been about the physical manifestation of ideas that represent itself in the human body. We can think of the videos plaguing the body of James Woods in Videodrome, the monsters of fear in The Brood created by the anxiety of motherhood, or even the almost mechanical movement of Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method. Packer, and Pattinson's approach to the character, is no different. He often uses the pronoun “we” to describe himself, as a way to seem himself beyond individualism and only as part of a larger system. He views sex as essential but only as a tool to balance out his bodily urges. And he finds it no problem to talk business while having a prostate exam in his limo, in what is surely the film’s funniest sequence.

            In a way, Packer is attempting to evolve beyond humanity. If technology has allowed capitalism to trump humanity, than surely those that control its natural ebbs and flows can flow beyond its physical space. Cronenberg visual sense of this is simply impeccable. His shots feel completely unnatural—his beings are framed centered but just slightly off, creating a sense of discomfort, though his editing on these dialogue conversations has a pitch-perfect feeling, he always knows when to cut to examination the reaction or change in tone of every line, like he’s trying to dig through the psychology with a scalpel. The film has its set of bizarre images—a shock cut to some intense sex, cult leaders who see the rat as a god, a shot of someone shooting their own hand—and in true Cronenbergian fashion, he shoots it like the rest of his film, making what should be horrifying to a human into the mundane to Packer. At one point, Packer and a colleague (a great Samanthan Morton) debate the merits of a man who engulfs himself in flames on the side of the street. Packer debates that because it is unoriginal, the physical act has no meaning, and in fact all physical acts lose their meaning (another character discusses how people are analyzing both the grammar and the pause of an official’s statement—the search for meaning in physical manifestations of the world never ends).

            DeLillo is certainly an intellectual of the fullest state, but he is also a self-aware humorist (something that may infuriate some viewers, to say the very least). During the film’s final confrontation, the character Packer meets (Paul Giamatti at his most insane and insanely good) tells him its “time for a philosophical pause and reflection,” as the film does precisely that. DeLillo and Cronenberg are not just interested in these ideas—technology, capitalism, the human form, revolution—but the way that humanity attempts to ascribe meaning to them to build them up. When a character out to kill Packer explains his rational, he describes every reason possible, yet none of them feel important. As Cronenberg shoots the scene, he uses a barrier between Packer and the man, showing the man as confused and weak. He screams out near the end “I want you to save me!” but what does salvation mean in a world where even Packer cannot rationalize the inexplicable rise of the Yuan?

            There’s so much to unpack in this gem, an easy candidate for the year’s most electrifying cinema. The film’s so pulled from real life, so vacuumed of any “realism,” it shows Cronenberg’s auterusit stamp in that in his artificiality becomes his personal vision of cinema. Everything in his film feels like an extension of his mind and method, most notably the performances, which also include Juliette Binoche, Matthieu Amalric, and Sarah Gadon (who almost steals the film as Packer's cold, just as rational wife with the line “you smell like sex”). It’s a film worth losing yourself to in its pure, ecstatic vision of a paranoid apocalyptic future that’s closer than we think. And in this parable of the dangers for both the 1% and 99%, all we can do is fear is the day when the rat becomes the unit of currency.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review, it's my favourite Pattinson movie by far. The boy's got oodles of talent still yet to be appreciated by the masses. However, can I point at the his surname is P.A.T.T.I.N.S.O.N not Pattison. As you mention you altered the mispelling of the protagonist's name to PACKER it seems fitting to spell the star's name correctly, no?