He sits in a plush, pleather easy chair located in the back of a gleaming white limousine. Surrounding him on almost all sides are stacked banks of complex computers, constantly spewing out completely indecipherable information. He thinks about getting a haircut. Or maybe killing himself. Either seems to be of equal importance in his mind. He seems to have something to do with stocks or trading or commodities, and speaks ominously of gigantic deals, currency exchange, and other oblique phrases culled from an economy so complex that only experts like him can traverse it. This is Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), the soulless 28-year-old billionaire center of David Cronenberg’s newest musing, Cosmopolis, a damning and intense condemnation of the nation’s .001%.
Cosmopolis, the first film Cronenberg has both penned and directed since 1999’s eXistenZ, is essentially an Occupy film, only told from the perspective of an ultra-rich yuppie übermensch who wheels and deals and tinkers with the fates of millions, all from the back of his slow-moving car, surrounded by security guards. This limousine is the only universe that Packer seems to know. He meets his mistresses (Juliette Binoche and Emily Hampshire) in the limo. He has all his business meetings in it (Samantha Morton and he not only trade deals, but spitball high-minded and half-baked Randian ideas with one another). He even has daily doctor’s appointments in it. The daily prostate exams (and thank you Cronenberg for that healthy dose of your bodily horror obsessions) seem to be the only thing in Eric’s life that indicates that he’s not an android of some sort. He does have an impeccably constructed wife (the girlish Sarah Gadon), whom he begs for sex (I suppose that’s what one does with wives), and who is the only being who refuses to enter his safety pod. He lives in silence, without expression. He doesn’t have a soul, and he has to remind himself that he has a body with probes and meaningless sex, pursued less out of passion or libidinal interests, and more as a rote expression of his amorality.
In between the blank stares and human playacting, there are some refreshing moments of bizarre levity. Someone actually says the line, “God, I could go home and tongue kiss my Maxima!”
Cronenberg is typically a very organic director, obsessing, as he does, with the divide between the mind’s powerful philosophical powers, and the base bodily necessities that undercut all of it. Cosmopolis is uncharacteristically sterile for him. It takes place mostly in a car, and is obsessed with cool machines, and clean, sterile living. It’s not until the film’s final third (where it actually begins to fall apart a little) that personal chaos begins to creep in. Until then, our antihero seems to be hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Indeed, in the film’s best scene, Pattinson and Morton discuss how they impact the world economy, and why people protest in Occupy movements. Their discussion is cold and removed and purely academic. Meanwhile, unheard on the outside of the limo, a riot seems to be taking place, and vandals are busily spray-painting the car. These people are so morally separated from the world, they literally don’t notice – or don’t care – what’s happening just outside their door. Cosmopolis seems to argue that class and wealth not only divide us economically, but almost make us an entirely different species.
I have been waiting for a film like this. A film that earnestly and satirically confronts the economic crisis without reducing it to a hack plot, or a rote thriller. But also presents the large hulking machinery of the world economy as a bizarre game, with unseen rules, being played by inhuman creatures. Indeed, Pattinson plays the kind of archetypal rich guy you picture when we (the 99%) have discussions about rich guys. This film is a meditation, almost an abstraction, that muses on the very very very very rich, and manages to cast them in a new light. Pattinson is not playing the usual mean-spirited yuppie go-getter that we’re used to from the Reagan era. Pattinson is acquisitive, but doesn’t seem particularly ambitious or passionate. He glides through the system like an eel casually feeding on poor creatures it doesn’t even notice are nourishing it. The speeches of Gordon Gecko are a thing of the long ago past in this world. In this world, one must be born with inorganic parts in order to survive.
Most of Cronenberg’s films feature a bodily and atmospheric deterioration by the third act (think of the dingy apartments of Dead Ringers or Videodrome, or the prison in M. Butterfly), and Cosmopolis climaxes in a similar space, where Eric confronts a half-sane would-be assassin played by Paul Giamatti. Sadly, the climax whimpers out, and the philosophy of might that the two madmen discuss (rather endlessly) feels like an extra turgid layer of orchestrated (and unnecessary) subtext in an already pointedly oblique film. Luckily, the first two thirds of the film are such a fascinating portrait that the anticlimax can be forgiven.
Weird, difficult, and important, Cosmopolis may be one of the best films of the year.