Cosmopolis – film review


Cosmopolis is a dark mainstream drama with thriller elements which is just beyond the edge of the sort of film Amazing Stories would normally review. Except that it is written and directed by David Cronenberg and feels more like SF than anything the Canadian master has made since eXistenZ (1999). Cronenberg was responsible for Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, as well as the 1996 adaptation of J G Ballard’s tale of auto-erotic destructiveness, Crash. So when he returns even close to the genre it’s worth taking notice.

Note that it is not really possible to discuss Cosmopolis, and why it is ultimately such a disappointing film, without in general terms giving something of the story away. To that extent this review contains spoilers. However, I have tried not to be too specific, especially with regard to the final scenes. Cosmopolis is not a plot heavy film. There are no amazing twists or turns to reveal. It is a character based drama, and I hope I have given an honest appraisal of the film without spoiling whatever pleasures it may contain.

Like Crash, Cosmopolis is another film with a one word title beginning with c (we had a pairing like this last week with Carrie and Christine) focused around urban alienation, meaningless sex and fetishised cars. It is adapted by Cronenberg from Don DeLillo’s novel. Not so much a story as a character piece, following a day in the life of billionaire asset manager Eric Packer, a day in which Packer is chauffeured across Manhattan and has various meetings and assignations while his life falls apart. Meanwhile his security people report a credible threat to his life.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) ignores the protesters
Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) ignores the protesters

Packer is played with such detachment by Robert Pattinson (Twilight) it is hard to tell if the actor is giving a great performance as a blank-faced sociopath, or is simply a vacant actor with all the range of Charles Bronson ordering a pint of milk. Not having seen Pattinson in anything else I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, Cronenberg knows actors.

Packer certainly is a sociopath, unconcerned with anything other than his own immediate wants. And what he wants today is a haircut, oblivious of the fact his hair is perfectly cut and immaculately groomed. And he doesn’t want just any hair cut – at one juncture his driver points out there are two salons on the next block – he wants his hair cut by a particular barber across the island. Which entails a problem. The President is in town, which means both security and protesters are everywhere. Traffic is rerouted, roads are blocked, cars barely move. Packer doesn’t care. He wants a haircut. When told the President is in town he blankly asks, ‘which one?’ When told the President of the USA he doesn’t react, doesn’t care. People like Packer buy people like the President of the USA, and the President doesn’t cut hair.

The first two acts of Cosmopolis chart Packer’s journey across the city in his cork-lined, would-be soundproofed stretch limo. It’s not, he explains, that the sound proofing works – of course it doesn’t – but that extreme amounts of time and effort and money have been expended in a failed attempt. Packer is seriously entitled, as isolated as possible from the normal people who work around him. The car is his office, a high-tec palace on wheels. Much of the film takes place in the car, and most of the people Packer meets only feature in a single scene before Packer moves on. Other people exist only to serve him, sometimes literally, as with his mistress, played by Juliette Binoche. Packer leaves people behind, a tec geek, a financial adviser, the doctor who gives him his daily prostate exam, each as disposable as the doctor’s latex gloves.

Juliette Binoche as Didi Fancher
Juliette Binoche as Didi Fancher

One of the very few characters who reappears through the film Packer’s recently acquired wife, Elise, played by Sarah Gadon. Elise is also a billionaire, or from a family of billionaires. The difference is immaterial. The important difference is she is interested in literature, theatre, culture, in some meaning in her life – they meet in a bookstore, outside a theatre, in a restaurant – while he is only concerned with money, power and when they are going to have sex. The sex isn’t likely. They have only been married a few weeks but already he is being serially unfaithful, and Elise knows it. Apart from a mistress we see Packer have sex with a female bodyguard. He lies blatantly to Elise about his infidelity, even though she can smell sex on him, and he knows she knows. He doesn’t care.

Cosmopolis bookshop scene
Elise (Sarah Gadon) meeting Packer in a bookstore

Cosomopolis unfolds against Occupy-type street protests. Packer jokes about the rat becoming a unit of currency and stockpiled  rats posing a health hazard. There is discussion about computer technology dividing time into ever smaller incremental units, enabling ever faster trades, ushering in a new world where an elite make money for the sake of making money while the poor are swept away to die. It is a classic Cronenbergian vision of technological advance changing the face of humanity; eventually Packer starts to crumble, embracing the destruction of his dominion, as any Cronenberg anti-hero must. Over breakfast protesters occupy a restaurant and throw rats. Packer’s investments collapse and he looses hundreds of millions of dollars. He remains detached. Elise ends their relationship. Meanwhile the threat to his life is still out there, somewhere in the city.

Packer reaches his destination, and in a lengthy scene gets his haircut. The ordinary people Packer meets at the barber’s reveal a humanity entirely lacking in the billionaire. All the more apparent given we have just moments before seen Packer commit cold-blooded murder. It’s territory not so far removed from Mary Harron’s film of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, or even from David Fincher’s masterpiece, Fight Club. Except that both those films were made over a decade ago, and where once Cronenberg led, now he follows. And does so timidly.

Just as Cosmopolis enters its third act it falls completely apart. There is only one way for a film like this to end, in graphic, nihilistic, self-destructive violence. Instead Cronenberg chooses to end with a 20 minute chat with a new character played by Paul Giamatti. The car is left behind for a decaying office building. With scant plot logic Packer comes face to face with the credible threat. For the last fifth of the running time the two talk in a single room. There is some tension, but the conversation is unfocused, rambling, obtuse, anti-climatic. Almost nothing happens, and nothing comes of what does.

Paul Giamatti as Benno Levin
Paul Giamatti as Benno Levin

For the first 70 minutes Cosmopolis is the most vital thing Cronenberg has done in years. The third act is mostly tedious. I don’t doubt that many of the ruling billionaire elite are ruthless, exploitative, lying, manipulative sociopaths. That’s how they get where they are. What Cosmopolis is missing is a worthwhile story to tell about one of their number.

Much has been written in Cronenberg’s defense that he filmed Don DeLillo’s book with remarkable fidelity. Which is no defense at all. I’ve not read the book and have no opinion on it, but what works on the page doesn’t always work on screen, and a veteran filmmaker should know that. Perhaps Cosmopolis wasn’t a good choice of source material, or perhaps Cronenberg, as screenwriter, should have made drastic changes. Cosmopolis, once it finally eaves the car, develops a seriously flat battery.

Looking back to last week’s review, Cosmopolis is the inverse of Christine. In the John Carpenter film a teenager at the bottom of the social heap, Arnie Cunningham, is empowered by his car. Both films are at their best in the scenes set in and around their respective autos. The opposite of Cunningham, Packer is a man at the top brought low. Where Christine is Arnie’s power, Packer’s vehicle is a symbol of the power he already has, the power his unseen money confers. It is not the power itself. Yet even so Cosmopolis goes flaccid once the car is left behind, as if Packer has left his vitality with the symbolic trappings of influence. Neither Christine’s owner and Packer can have the woman they really want, and everything comes crashing down. Christine is a warm teen horror-fantasy, Cosmopolis as cold as they come, but Eric Packer and Arnie Cunningham are equally dark sides of the American dream.


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