By Linc Leifeste | August 23, 2012
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: David Cronenberg (screenplay), Don DeLillo (novel)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Durand, K’Naan, Emily Hampshire, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, Philip Nozuka, Patricia McKenzie, Abdul Ayoola, George Touliatos
Cosmopolis is a masterfully directed dystopian vision of a slightly futuristic near-parallel universe, populated with inscrutable characters who speak in cryptic tones. And in monotone, always in emotionless monotone. It’s executed flawlessly in all its dark, tense, claustrophobic glory. But it’s not a film I recommend from my heart as much as from my head. I have little doubt that with repeat viewings layers of meaning would be slowly revealed to me but this is a film that felt so cold, distant and anesthetic that I’m not sure I can put myself through repeat viewings (hey, life is short).
Based on a novel by Don DeLillo (which I haven’t read), Cosmopolis tells the story of one day in the life of Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). He is a member of the 1%, a youthful billionaire, and far and away the most monotone and loathsome of all the film’s characters. As for plot, it’s almost non-existent. The film opens with Packer standing outside of an office building next to his car letting his security agent Torval (Kevin Durand) know that he wants a haircut. The problem is his regular barber is across town and the city is insanely congested due to a Presidential visit, a high-profile rapper’s funeral and anarchist riots (Occupy, anyone?). Against Torval’s wishes, Packer steps in his limo and the journey begins. The film covers that cross-city trek from morning to night, with most of the film set inside the limo.
Along the way we learn a few things about Packer, all of which highlight that he is at an icy remove from anything that makes one human, including emotion. He does apparently feel a need to partake in sexual activity but doesn’t appear to particularly enjoy it. During the course of the day, he has sex with his older mistress (Juliette Binoche)–who somehow has access to a Rothko, the knowledge of which only leads Packer to crave the acquisition of the whole Chapel–and a female bodyguard (Patricia McKenzie) but is seemingly more stimulated by a prostrate exam administered in-car by his doctor while engaging in a face to face conversation with an aroused female consultant (Emily Hampshire). There is one woman with whom he conspicuously does not copulate, his new bride Elise (Sarah Gadon), although he does go through the motions of pursuit as he (randomly?) encounters her in multiple locations around town. Evidently she does not enter his car and he is not allowed to enter her.
We see Packer conduct business from his technologically advanced limousine as he entertains visits from equally young techie consultants (Jay Baruchel, Philip Nozuka) and watch him learn that his empire is hemorrhaging money, a thing which also seems to elicit little emotion. At one point, while engaged in a meeting with a brilliant advisor (Samantha Morton), the car is set upon by marauding anarchists but the passengers take little notice as the car is rocked, covered in graffiti, and assaulted. Visually, those scenes from inside the car are striking; with the cold calculated conversation continuing while outside it is violence and chaos. And they are telling images. Packer and his sort have come to exist in their own reality, completely separate from and unalterable by the masses. Pattinson turns in a solid performance as the soulless Packer although I’m not sure whether that’s due to his acting chops (I have my doubts) or his lack of range.
Things take a turn for the even more surreal once Packer, of his own volition (possibly instigated by the discovery that he has an asymmetrical prostate), steps outside of his car and commits a shocking and unexpected act of violence. Before the suddenly exposed Parker finally arrives at the barbershop he gets a pie in the face from a devoted provocateur (Mathieu Amalric). Accompanied by his driver (Abdul Ayoola), Packer enters the barbershop and engages in conversation with aged barber Anthony (George Touliatos), and it is in this three-way exchange that we are finally treated to some sense of life as we understand it, replete with nostalgia-laden emotion. There is a sense that this is why Packer wanted to see the barber, a desperate attempt to connect to some illusory past human existence that was actually humane.
The film’s final act involves a violent encounter between Packer and a disheveled former employee, Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), whose life has spiraled out of control and seems to be seeking some kind of retribution. The dialogue between the two is dense and philosophical to the point of being esoteric but again we see signs that Packer is striving for feeling and that any effort by the 99% to impact the 1% may be futile as Levin’s inordinately large handgun seems unable to find the mark.
Ultimately, the film elicited no concern from me for Packer’s well-being and no empathy for his existence at all but I’m confident it never intended to. The film instead is a masterful meditation on modernity and the ever-growing divide between those who inhabit the “real world” and those who run it, the excruciatingly dehumanized understatement of the telling becoming one with the story being told. While it’s a hard watch, it’s a film that should be seen and painfully, probably should be seen again and again.