CANNES – Eric Packer, the disaffected, boy-billionaire anti-hero of “Cosmopolis,” has an asymmetrical prostate. We”re told this no fewer than three times in David Cronenberg”s highly garrulous but bullet-cold adaptation of Don DeLillo”s compact 2003 novel, and it can”t just be to tease us with the reassuring prospect that there”s something imperfect about Robert Pattinson”s svelte, slicked, immaculately suited physique – nor just to amuse us with the notion that this sleek automaton of a protagonist has a prostate at all.
Rather, the image – though lifted straight from DeLillo”s novel, like pretty much everything in Cronenberg”s exceedingly faithful adaptation thereof – seems principally an assertion of the hand of David Cronenberg. That is, the funny, fevered, corporeally obsessed Cronenberg of old, the Cronenberg who became his own best adjective and has been only intermittently present, if not always to detrimental effect, in his last three or four films. After his intellectually heady but almost perversely restrained psychology drama, “A Dangerous Method,” debuted only months ago to polite critical applause that nonetheless questioned his edge, the hinky, kinky, defiantly unlovable “Cosmopolis” lands in our laps with bristly self-assurance. “You asked for this,” it seems to be saying, one of the few things unspoken amid its torrent of thematically pointed verbiage. “Let”s see if you really want it.”
A structurally episodic but rhythmically homogeneous essay on our self-inflicted socio-economic decay, set in a Manhattan at once present-day and indeterminately futuristic – DeLillo”s novel was actually set three years before its publication date, but no year is specified here – “Cosmopolis” represents Cronenberg”s first visit to heightened reality since 1999″s “eXistenZ,” which is also, arguably, the new film”s closest tonal cousin in the director”s filmography. We”re not strictly in a fantasy zone (nor, despite the promise of R.Pattz”s dippy prostate, is body horror on the cards here), but the removal from reality is near-total, down to the frozen alien meter with which the cast have been instructed to deliver their scarcely reactive dialogue.
Packer himself appears to reside mostly in the cocoon on his tricked-out white limousine – coming on the heels of Leos Carax”s “Holy Motors” (more on that later), Cannes appears to be telling us that the white limo is where autonomous human identity goes to die. The vehicle’s interior resembles the inverted exoskeleton of a particularly Cronenbergian insect, a moving quarantine chamber in which even the view from the windows appears back-projected. Outside, New York heaves and riots in graffiti-ed disorder as the President visits, a renowned rapper is carried to his funeral, stock markets plummet and rats are hurled about like hand grenades. (Book and film alike open with a Zbigniew Herbert quote: “A rat became the unit of currency.”)
Packer isn”t as indifferent to this end-of-days destruction, and his capitalist complicity with it, as his fellow New York tycoon Sherman McCoy – or even Patrick Bateman – would be, but he does appear sincerely uncomprehending of it. That the life-in-a-day narrative runs on a mission as mundane as travelling across town to get a haircut (one his perfectly pomaded head doesn”t even require) may or may not reflect the head-in-the-sand self-orientation of first-world society that ultimately enables such chaos.
DeLillo”s novel and Cronenberg”s treatment of it are too opaque to warrant fully the terms ‘allegory” or ‘satire,” but their remote, stream-of-consciousness distortion of urban living”s least flattering actualities sound a piercing alarm bell. And not a subtle one, either. “A Specter is haunting the world,” reads a fleetingly glimpsed digital billboard. “The spectre is capitalism.” Within the Cannes Competition, “Cosmopolis” plays almost as a bizarro-world negative of Andrew Dominik”s similarly direct state-of-the-nation address “Killing Them Softly,” though the comic absurdities of Cronenberg”s story world better support such candor.
This is the richest, wittiest, most stimulating material Cronenberg has had to work with in a decade – not for nothing is it his first self-scripted feature since “eXistenZ” – but I’m not convinced the finished film, briskly paced and unapologetically talky as it is, quite makes good on the opportunity. As it stands, the permanently on-message postulating of “Cosmopolis” proves a little wearing, though perhaps more so to jaded Cannes patrons on their tenth day of festival viewing. Cronenberg”s keenness to cram as many of DeLillo”s words into a script that amounts to little more than a sequence of ornate two-person conversations threatens inertia, but the film is never quite dull.
Most surprising is that it”s the scenes within Packer”s limo (notably a febrile sex scene between Pattison and a luminously cameoing Juliette Binoche) that are tautest and most flammable. When the film ventures out onto the street, the energy – or, if not energy, the effectively slippery equivalent inherent in Pattinson”s compellingly blank screen presence – dissipates.
Longtime Cronenberg loyalist Peter Suchitzky”s camera certainly responds best to claustrophobia, its invasive too-close-ups and just-too-high angles lending the whole film the sense of a security surveillance tape from purgatory. Matters are made no less disconcerting by the compressed silent yawns of the sound design and the hovering insinuations of Howard Shore”s spare, electro-influenced score, all of which recall smaller, nastier works from the director, dating all the way back to “Stereo.” Even when we can”t quite decipher its message, there”s a hint of the didactic about “Cosmopolis” that speaks to its late place in the director”s canon; its emptily chaotic environment, however, is classic Cronenbergia, as invigoratingly and reassuringly strange as can be.
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