Crossing Manhattan in a limo while the world crashes down
Cool, conceptual, elegant, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is such an accurate adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel (the director wrote it all himself, rarely deviating from the scenes and words of the book) that anyone who condemns the film, we have to assume, would simply not like the book either (as I do, very much). Cosmopolis is a smart movie. It’s also the second time the Canadian director has done a book adaptation revolving around a car — but this is restrained compared to his kinky, surreal film version of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. It’s a delicate and stylish and thoughtful, as well as, subtly ironic movie. Many will find it chilly and off-putting. Maybe they’ll come back to watch the star, Robert Pattinson, give his best screen performance; his pop matinee idol status helps keep the film from seeming too arty. And this is a very timely piece of work. “Though DeLillo wrote the novel a few years after the tech collapse of 2000,” as David Denby declares in his expository New Yorker review, “it now seems prescient about the much greater collapse of 2008,” and its “anti-capitalist theatrics in the streets seem a very accurate anticipation of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” Cronenberg has also, perhaps, made the movie more timely by switching from the yen to the yuan as the currency the protagonist disastrously bets on the decline of, China being a scarier economic adversary these days than Japan.
But this isn’t just the novel. Needless to say Cronenberg has added elegantly appropriate visuals, bright and psychedelic, dp Peter Suschitzky making distinctive use of that beautiful, light-defying, real-unreal effect of the digital camera even in the somber interior of protagonist Eric Packer’s white stretch limo. And there are the actors, meaning Robert Pattinson and a steadily unrolling series of others, mostly one at a time, and the smart, deft, angular editing by Ronald Sanders that jumps us into Eric’s switches from limo to diner to hotel, from in-car prostate exam to in-car sex to diner and bookstore visit with his constantly appearing but rather distant new wife; encounters with a bodyguard outside a basketball court and with a raging enemy in a half abandoned building, each scene as mercurial and ironic as all the rest. It’s spectral and unreal, in-your-face and withdrawn. It’s quintessential Cronenberg, and yet it’s DeLillo too. It’s not sci-fi; it’s futuristic reality. It’s faithful to its source but it sings: Cronenberg knows the key this is written in. Tweeting at Cannes, Mike D’Angelo wrote “Demands an incredibly precise tone that Cronenberg nails about half the time. Thrilling when he does.” I’d say he nails it much better than half the time, though some scenes just work better on the page than on the screen.
Pattinson, his vampire cult-series celebrity helping to stand in for his character’s power, wealth, and bravado, is lean and understated, keen, supple, withdrawn, a minimalist like DeLillo’s style. This protagonist is filled with appetites (sex, thick and solid food, danger, power, wealth, victory, defeat, violence). On this day when he rides across town to get a haircut in a barbershop his father went to, he watches world markets on multiple screens at his fingertips and has his daily medical and prostate exam, talks to people and has sex with them or joins them for a meal, including, not in that order, his head of security Shiner (Jay Baruchel, who looks a little too weird), his chief bodyguard Torval (a colourless but believable Kevin Durand), his playful boy currency whiz Michael Chin (an amused Philip Nozuka), his jogger-consultant Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire) his sex partner and art dealer Didi (a slightly worn-out Juliette Binoche), his ruminative philosophical consultant (a widened and commanding Samantha Morton), his new wife from a mega-rich European dynasty Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon, meant to be not quite beautiul) several other women he works with or sexes with, the barber and his driver and the deeply embittered employee (Giamatti) who wants to kill him. Mathieu Amalric gets to do a quick street rug-chew as a conceptual artist-cum-political protester who’s so much not a credible threat he’s allowed to walk away, after Eric has personally punched him in the groin. He also talks and weeps a little with the associate of a Sufi rapper he admired who has died of natural causes, Brother Fez (K’Naan).
All this non-action is a lot of action, conceptually and cinematically quite fresh, while whirring around the still point of the protagonist’s silent car — because in the movie it is shot as silent inside the limo, to highlight the chaos and movement outside its one-way windows and bullet-proof frame. (In the book it has Carrara marble on the floor, but the movie leaves that detail out. In the book we also get to hear more of Eric’s private ruminations, which also unfortunately must be left out.)
Meanwhile Eric is losing hundreds of millions of dollars betting on a drop in the Chinese yuan, which persists in going up. He is trying to persuade Didi to buy the Rothko chapel for him to put in his apartment. “It belongs to the world”, she says. “Well let them bid for it then”, he retorts. The trip crosstown is halted by the Occupy-like demonstration Denby noted and meanwhile the president — that’s of the United States — a remote figure, merely a vague obstacle — is in town shifting directions and causing stoppages wherever he goes; and there is a “credible threat,” to Eric that is, meaning somebody wants to get him.
Cosmopolis would be nothing without its dialogue and Cronenberg luckily includes arcane touches like how Eric has “prousted” his car, meaning he’s had its interior cork-lined like Marcel Proust’s bedroom to keep the noise out, though this may be more a literary gesture (he’s well read) than a practical one. “How could it work,” Eric says. “The city eats and sleeps noise. It makes noise out of every century. It makes the same noise it made in the seventeenth century along with all the noises that have evolved since then. No. But I don’t mind the noise. The noise energises me. The important thing is that it’s there.” There’s also the dialogue where Eric and boy genius Michael Chin rif on the idea of rats being made a world currency.
“Yes. There is growing concern that the Russian rat will be devalued.”
“White rats. Think about that.”
“Yes. Pregnant rats.”
“Yes. Major sell-off of pregnant Russian rats.”
“Britain converts to the rat,” Chin said.
“Yes. Joins trend toward universal currency.”
“Yes. U.S. establishes rat standard.”
“Yes. Every U.S. dollar redeemable for rat.”
“Yes. Stockpiling of dead rats called global health menace.”
And there is the persistent, somehow distancing use of the word “this.” “I did not know this.”
The young billionaire’s world is both solipsistic and not. The world does not exist outside his head, he asserts early on in the book; but that’s a philosophical concept. It’s epistemology; it’s Leibnitz. But does the world really not exist outside his limo, or isn’t it rather just he’d rather it didn’t? Wouldn’t he just rather that when the limo is covered with broad red and black graffiti (including the giant word “rat” as if to declare him the currency of proletarian hate, a rodent of the 1%), the world of protesters and security threats still might be unable, thanks to his billions, to impinge on him? Or might he rather that they did impinge, to make him feel more alive? Is it not that he’s in a downward spiral and that he can only fight it by joining it? He’s glad when the head of the IMF is stabbed to death in Nike North Korea on TV, and he sees it; he hates the man; his death livens things up. Maybe he is trying to manipulate the world’s economies, their currencies anyway (as Soros once brought anger upon himself for losing while trying to do). But he is also isolated: very powerful, but also in some sense nonexistent, invisible.
This, anyway, is what the disgruntled outcast Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti, in an overwrought performance) is infuriated about: that he is a nonentity, and Eric has contributed to that. Benno Levin appears in premonitory diary form early in the book, but not in the movie. And the finale of the book, a kind of cliffhanger, after Eric has turned weapons against one of his closest staff members and himself, the abrupt ending, may work there on the page, but seems weak in a movie. Cosmopolis is a beautiful, exotic buildup, creating a world of intense and complex growing expectation, but the finale is a bit of a disappointment. Nonetheless Cronenberg has created something beautiful and surprisingly literary. And let no one damn the movie for faithfully recreating DeLillo’s thoughtful and wholly original novel. As Justin Chang of Variety says in his generally admiring review, “Charges that this study in emptiness and alienation itself feels empty and alienating are at once accurate and a bit beside the point, and perhaps the clearest confirmation that Cronenberg has done justice to his subject.” Read the book; you’ll see what we mean.
David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis debuted in competition at Cannes and opened in the UK 15th June.
DIRECTOR: DAVID CRONENBERG
STARS: ROBERT PATTINSON, PAUL GIAMATTI, JULIETTE BINOCHE, SARAH GADON, MATTHIEU AMALRIC, SAMANTHA MORTON, EMILY HAMPSHIRE, KEVIN DURAND, JAY BARUCHEL, PHILIP NOZUKA
RUNTIME: 108 MINS APPROX