“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“Cosmopolis,” the latest film by David Cronenberg, is a lot like Fernet Branca. For those who have something better to do with their evenings than learn about the more obscure bottles at the bar, Fernet Branca is a dark, bitter, strange combination of idiosyncrasies, and I love it to death. I also quite enjoyed “Cosmopolis,” but like the peculiar sludge that is Fernet Branca, I wouldn’t be surprised if I never met someone who enjoys it like I do.
“Cosmopolis” is based on the novel of the same name by Don DeLillio. The script, written by Cronenberg, retains a lot of DeLillio’s intentionally unnatural prose and it takes some time to get used to. Robert Pattinson, fresh off a quarter-life sentence in the “Twilight” franchise, plays Eric Packer, a man who has risen to the rank of billionaire financial genius at the tender-but-tarnished age of 28. In a feat no less impressive than his domination of the global currency market, Packer has managed to surround himself with people who speak exclusively in oblique, philosophical turns of phrase with just a sprinkling of hard-boiled detective talk for flavor.
Artificiality is essential to “Cosmopolis” and the indictment of it becomes central to the film’s meandering plot. Packer, whose name doesn’t even come up in the script until we’re deep into the casual psychosis of the movie’s tone, cloisters himself in his opulent limousine, ostensibly on his way to get a haircut at his favorite Manhattan barber shop on the busiest traffic day of the year. Aside from several stops for food, sex, and other indulgences, Packer’s trip is stymied by a mysterious funeral procession and a visit by the president that, combined with a conspicuous crop of billionaires, chokes the streets of New York City with identical, white limos and angry protesters.
Though the anti-capitalist demonstrators that rage outside Packer’s tinted windows evoke several shades of Occupy, it’s important to note that DeLillo’s novel hit shelves a full eight years before the first tent sprung up in Zuccotti Park. They shout about “the specter of capitalism” and at one point cover Packer’s limo in spray paint while he looks on with cold detachment. Any prescience on DeLillio’s part is either a coincidence or stiff competition for Nostradamus.
Cold detachment is really the overarching tone of “Cosmopolis.” It only takes around 15 minutes of screen time to acclimate to the purposely-stilted dialogue, but the barely-there affect of each character, especially Pattinson’s Eric Packer, requires a perceptual adjustment that never really happens. As he meets with a procession of business advisers and constantly blows off his chief of security, Packer stays cucumber-cold despite the obvious anarchy erupting just beyond the sleek confines of his isolated seat.
Those waiting for a point or overarching moral from “Cosmopolis” will be sorely disappointed. It is an intentionally confusing exercise in postmodernism, using the linguistic trappings of financial wizardry and philosophical sophomorism to distract from the absurdity of every on-board limousine gadget and over-dressed ingénue sitting in a grimy New York diner. Like Pattinson’s character, “Cosmopolis” is gorgeous and cold, but hiding a screaming insanity just beneath the surface.
David Cronenberg hasn’t visited the surreal climes in which this film wallows for some time. He has spent the entire past decade trying to engage with audiences in the most straightforward way of his entire career. Though the likes of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” are still challenging films, and his latest – the lopsided bid for prestige that was “A Dangerous Method” – courted more mainstream audiences, “Cosmopolis” belongs to a different sort. This is a film in the vein of Cronenberg in the 1990s. This is the guy who made “Naked Lunch,” “Crash,” and “eXistenZ.” “Cosmopolis” is a singular, psycho-sexual assault that disarms its audience with a mix of scary suggestions and good visual taste.
Though it may not be strictly impossible, finding meaning in Cronenberg’s take on “Cosmopolis” is certainly foolhardy. It moves much like a dream – and not the kind of dream that pops in most movies, all clear allegories of relevant themes. This film operates on dream logic to no obvious end. It is the dream you have of eating a pastrami sandwich while a man you don’t remember waves a dead rat in the air. It’s the dream of getting an absurdly lengthy prostate exam in a limousine while conversing with someone who speaks like a drunk, fevered Nietzsche. It’s the dream of having a gun waved in your face by a man who wears a moldy towel like a nun’s habit.
The small, weird, ready-for-something-completely-different audience likely to get the most out of “Cosmopolis” can see it at the Landmark Varsity Theatre in the University District or the Regal Meridian downtown now. “Twilight” fans are welcome to spend $11 to be confused for two hours and be thrilled by the two seconds of Robert Pattinson’s pubic hair that appears roughly 90 minutes into the film.