David Cronenberg: Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis was met upon its 2012 release with deeply mixed and middling reviews, which strikes me as wrong given that recent developments in human history have made it feel more vital than ever. It’s a deeply weird film, often funny, and its unconventional narrative structure and mannered dialogue goes against the norms of commercial filmmaking in the early-21st century. But it’s also a film that connects many of Cronenberg’s abiding thematic interests—in the body, technology, and sex—in order to paint a frighteningly stark portrait of the world of late capitalism. It is a world that belongs to Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson): a billionaire, currency trader, art collector who just wants a haircut. In short, it’s our world.

Cosmopolis was adapted from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, the author of the postmodern classics, White Noise and Underworld, known for his biting critiques of contemporary society. The film was Cronenberg’s first screenplay he wrote himself since eXistenZ in 1999. On the commentary track for the film, Cronenberg reveals that he completed the writing in a mere six days, transcribing all the dialogue from DeLillo’s novel and then selecting and building his script around the dialogue, which for the most part is entirely retained in its “Pinteresque” style, a style notable for its underlying menace and threat as well as unnatural pauses and stiltedness.

Cosmopolis is, like the works of many postmodern authors, including DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, a reworking of many of the tropes and themes of literary modernism for our late-capitalist condition. With modernism, it shares an interest in alienation, the nature of the self, and contains an awareness of its literary and filmic conceits: it is not realistic, nor is it meant to be. Cosmopolis is a kind of modern day version of James Joyce’s Ulysses, taking place in a single day in the life of the aforementioned 28-year-old billionaire, Eric Packer. Eric is a venture capitalist and currency speculator, who has trampled on his enemies and acted without regard for human considerations other than profit. His genius resides in his ability to process vast quantities of data in his business calculations and act on them with a ruthlessness devoid of humanity and morality. In the film, this data is communicated to him both through the many screens that fill his sound-isolated white limousine and by a number of aides who visit him therein during his journey across Manhattan to get a haircut.

Being DeLillo’s first novel post-9/11, the novel, and to a great degree Cronenberg’s film adaptation, is fashioned as a kind of  21st-century “wasteland.” Like Eliot’s poem of that name, its setting is a world of desolation, and its central question concerns redemption and rebirth: can Eric achieve human connection and emerge more whole at the end of this journey? DeLillo’s novel was written in the aftermath of the post-dotcom bubble and in the wake of 9/11, a moment when many of the central assumptions of our civilization were challenged. Cronenberg’s film, produced after the 2008 market crash and filmed at the same time the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement was active in New York City—which also bears some resemblance to the anti-capitalist protests of the film itself—retains the novel’s dark humour in portraying life on the precipice of a system barely holding itself together. It’s worth pointing out how both DeLillo and Cronenberg seem to anticipate moments just ahead of their becoming actuality, continuing a trend of Cronenberg being able to sense larger societal patterns that goes back at least to Videodrome and its heralding of the “new flesh.” This makes Cosmopolis a solid companion piece to Cronenberg’s earlier techno-evolutionary thrillers (including Crash and eXistenZ) and makes even more puzzling the lackluster critical enthusiasm for Cosmopolis I noted above.

Jumping ahead to 2019, Cosmopolis has lost none of its power, as the systemic crises that face our society continue in the wake of Trump and Brexit. Eric has bet massive amounts of money on the crash of the Chinese yuan (astutely changed by Cronenberg from the Japanese yen in the novel), yet the currency keeps climbing in value all day, costing Eric billions of dollars. (It should be noted that the yuan, is not strictly speaking a convertible currency, its value pegged to the value of the US dollar. However, recent changes in China have allowed it to be traded more broadly, and as of 2013 is convertible on current accounts, another example of Cronenberg “future proofing” and anticipating moves in his work).

But financial considerations aside, Eric wants a haircut. And so, with his trusty bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand), he heads across Manhattan on 47th St. in his limo, encountering a city plugged up by the visit of the American president, an ongoing anti-capitalist protest, and the funeral process of Eric’s favourite rap artist. Walled up and isolated, Packer journeys across town, having several chance meetings with his new wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), as well as his various chief advisors, of technology, art, security, and theory. His daliences and dialogues with these various characters make up the bulk of the film, one sequence after the other. Eric engages in long discussions about art (Eric wants to buy the Rothko Chapel), commerce, and technology with these characters on his periphery, most of whom have only a single scene in the film and then are not heard from again. All the while, Eric is warned that he is in danger, from both a political artist known as the pastry assassin (played by Mathieu Almaric), known to be on the loose, and another “credible threat” who remains to be uncovered.

Eric’s quest to get a haircut against an absurd and rapidly chaotic background may seem quotidian and silly, but in Cosmopolis, characters are driven by their desires. And in the thoroughly Freudian cinema of David Cronenberg, desires are rarely rational and need never be questioned on logical terms. Eric’s desire for a haircut is no more rational than Vaughan’s desire to have sex in cars in Crash. Desire isn’t necessarily borne out of what we consider human need, but can be shaped by systems and technology we engage with. The question at the heart of Cosmopolis is what does capital want, and how are the desires of capital related to the desires of human beings?

At one point a message flashes across an electronic billboard: “A spectre is haunting the world: the spectre of capitalism.” This is an allusion to the opening of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, in which the spectre haunting Europe is that of communism. Is this merely a pointless inversion of Marx, pointing to the way that capitalism has come to suffuse every aspect of our lives? Tracking Cronenberg’s deep obsessions with the body, change, and power across his films, I think it is significant that the film is about capitalism. It’s important to point out that Cosmopolis isn’t a socialist film: few, if any, of the characters apart from the background protesters actually want to break free of the system. But it is deeply attuned to the way that capitalism shapes our desires and even our very identity as human beings. I might go so far to say that Cosmopolis is intellectually Marxist in its analysis and diagnosis, but it isn’t revolutionarily Marxist. It isn’t positing an alternative system. Eric, by all measures, is the example par excellence of capitalist success. But he is isolated—literally, in the limo, and figuratively, by his distance from others, including his wife and the bodyguard Torval, whom he is somewhat obsessed with.

In Marx’s analysis of the way that capital functions, it isn’t just that the working class are exploited, it’s that the interests (which we could read as a Freudian “desire”) of the bourgeoisie ruling classes are aligned with the interests of capital, which are in reality the interests of a non-human profit motive. They are the interests of no one.

Cronenberg is not calling for a global revolution: in all his films he seems to be deeply ambivalent about upheavals of existing systems. But given Cronenberg’s fascination with how our technological developments shape our bodily desires, in the autophilia of Crash or the organic game-pods of eXistenZ, Cosmopolis fits neatly into this exploration of the effect of technological developments on our sense of self. In this case though, the “technology” is capitalism.

Cosmopolis is also filled with discussion of the ways that physical being is shaped and shapes technology and knowledge. In one memorable sequence Eric has his daily prostate exam while in the limo and conducting business with an aide. Cronenberg has fun with the strangeness of conducting this exam in the cramped rear of the limo. We see Eric hunched over facing the camera, wide-angle lenses thrusting him into our view, the doctor working in the background. At the conclusion of this absurdly long exam, the doctor announces that Eric has an asymmetrical prostate. This news is assimilated in the reams of information that Eric has been processing, and the motif of asymmetry, of organic imperfection pitted against technological alignment, will come to be a symbol of Eric physical/technological information processing.

The film highlights Eric’s alienation in its structure. He deals with individuals as discrete units, and his interactions with his various advisors and even his wife—herself a billionaire who seems to be deeply isolated from humanity in a wonderful performance by Gadon—are shaped by their shared existence in elite spaces and interest in the movements of capital, rather than human warmth and connection. He moves from space to space, sometimes from car to car, such as in an early sequence where he sees Elise in a cab next to his limo and simply moves across the traffic at a stopped light from door to door. His sexual liasons with his art advisor (Binoche) and his new bodyguard (Patricia McKenzie) do not bring him the intimacy he craves. What the film chronicles is Eric’s search for connection and his realization that his accumulation of wealth cannot give it to him, and even alienates him from achieving that connection.

Now, because this is a Cronenberg film, one should be disabused of the fact that Eric will consciously realize this. Like a good Freudian subject, Eric never sees what is staring him right in the face. Rather, the film is filled with slippage between objects and sublimation of desire onto other activities. This is appropriate for a film that is also ostensibly about a currency trader: one thing being traded for another. Eric just moves from place to place, object to object, in search of connection.

One of the few sequences where he shows connection is when he hears the news that the Sufi rapper, Brotha Fez (played and music performed by Canadian-Somali rapper K’Naan), has died; on the screens of his limo, Eric watches Fez’s funeral procession (complete with whirling dervishes) pass and he weeps for this musician, one of the only human beings he has professed passion for. It is only in a transactional model of consumption of art that Eric can feel. This is also reinforced by his desire to own the Rothko Chapel; art only means something to him when he can own it.

Eventually Eric gets his haircut, from his barber whom he has visited since he was a child. It’s finally here, in this location, that Eric is able to find his connection to a desire outside of the realm of exchange and where he beings to have a breakthrough. After this sequence Eric finally confronts the “credible threat” who is revealed to be one of his former employees, Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti). Benno is angry at Eric for cutting him out and destroying his dreams. It’s instructive that Benno is not hoping to topple the system, but angry at his own exclusion from capital gains. He reveals that Eric’s asymmetrical prostate is a sign that the quest for purely technological symmetry will never realize Eric’s goals in currency trading. In a series of long takes (the whole final sequences is over 22 minutes long), staging Eric and Benno in the screen together (continuing Cronenberg’s favouring of focus in depth from A Dangerous Method), Benno and Eric come to a final moment where it seems clear that Benno is going to kill Eric. Eric seems to have accepted this as the only way out of the system that he sees and accepts his fate as the film cuts to black.

In many ways, Cosmopolis is Cronenberg’s first comedy. While it is theoretically heady, and dramatically contrived, its power and the reason it works is the humour that Cronenberg draws from this deeply uncanny look at the way that our system of economic desire shapes those in power and those outside of power, drawing everything and everyone into the machine. It’s a thematic continuation of Cronenberg’s work in films like Crash and eXistenZ, and shows that Cronenberg has a keen eye for casting. Robert Pattinson shows himself more than game and capable in his portrayal of Eric. Cosmopolis was one of his first post-Twilight bids for critical acclaim. It’s been a pleasure to see him take his star power and use it to lend a viability to projects outside the mainstream, which started with this film.

Returning to Cosmopolis several years after its initial release and near the end of our year-long retrospective of his work shows it to be an example of a director continuing to push boundaries, though more conceptually than in terms of content (although there are a few scenes of sex and violence that put Cosmopolis in the category of films that might make uncomfortable viewing for sensitive viewers). Cosmopolis is a darkly comic examination of the system we live in and thematically rich and rewarding, showing that Cronenberg still has a knack for shining a light on the way we are shaped by our world, technology, and desires.

9 out of 10

Cosmopolis (2012, Canada/France/Italy/Portugal)

Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Don DeLillo; starring Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Durand, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel, Mathieu Almaric, Patricia McKenzie, K’Naan.