Film4.com’s editor Catherine Bray’s film of Cannes is David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson
Cosmopolis has been assessed as a ‘cold’ film, which it is. Warmth would derail it. An immersion in the process of 28 year old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) committing financial suicide over one day as he travels by limo to get his hair cut, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis isn’t the critique of a social realist or egalitarian, peering in at the villain of the piece. Nor is it asking us to spare a thought for the mega-wealthy because sometimes it’s hard to be a billionaire. What it recognises is the disproportionate and urgent need to comprehend this mindset, given its disproportionate power.
And so Cronenberg’s eerily pitch-perfect realisation of Don DeLillo’s brilliant novel plugs us deep into Eric Packer’s shallow existence, allowing us to feel what he feels – or rather, and here comes that word ‘cold’ again – to not feel what he fails to feel, cold as his lifestyle renders him to the world. And how could it not? That’s the dark question at the heart of Cosmopolis – we can see that such wealth is damaging, we can see the fathomless isolation, the safety, the boredom, the affectless distance, and yet, as Packer tells Paul Giamatti’s vagrant savant, we fail to really hate the rich because in our minds, we’re all ten seconds away from becoming rich.
The film does not ask how the world came to be this way; it’s enough to know that it has, with Packer’s chief of theory Vija Kinsky, played with delicious callousness by Samantha Morton, boiling it down to money having “lost its narrative quality, the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself.” We’re into money’s surreal, post-modern, dangerous, self-referential period.
The film does ask, repeatedly, how this situation is sustained, how it ebbs and flows. Media are inevitably culpable, and lurking in the corner of the frame throughout. Packer’s quest for a haircut reflects a world where fortunes are made and lost on reputation, on appearance. “I keep hearing about our legend,” he says, “We’re all young and smart and were raised by wolves.” Emily Hampshire’s Jane Melman, Packer’s chief of finance, contests the myth, not on content, but on appearance, dismissing Packer’s 22 year old adviser on a technicality of hair and dress: “He has the streak in his hair. He has the earring.” Packer protests: “He does not have the earring.” Both know exactly what hypothetical earring – definite article – the earring, they are talking about, both hypersensitive to almost imperceptible codes of surface and appearance.
This ain’t nothing new, of course; in the Pensées, Pascal famously remarks “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed” – but what is new is the measure of time in which judgements based on such aesthetics – the semiotics of an earring, the length of a nose – are made, disseminated around the world, acted upon, and the stakes attached. Time is a key obsession in Cosmopolis; Packer speaks of nanoseconds, zeptoseconds, yoctoseconds, the units measuring market forces of billions, crashing or soaring on the strength of a pause in a speech. A finance minister is reportedly about to resign because he paused momentarily in the middle of a speech. “They are trying to construe the meaning of the pause,” Melman explains, “So the whole economy convulses because a man took a breath.”
The time over which Packer has no control is his own age. Nobody in their late twenties can fail to feel the dull ache in his statement: “I was always younger than anyone around me. One day it began to change,” just as, perhaps, many people older than this will be dismissive of or even amused by the sentiment. Packer attempts to arrest the decay of his flesh with daily doctor’s appointments, leading to one of the film’s most electric sequences: Packer receiving a lengthy and apparently somewhat painful prostate exam, face to face with his chief of finance Melman, who grips her water bottle with what Packer reads as sexual tension: “you choke it”.
Bodies and sex in Cosmopolis are generally perverse, commodified or both; Packer asks his bodyguard to use her stun gun on him during a sexual encounter, while marital sex is a transaction involving dynasties. “You have your mother’s breasts. […] Great stand up tits.” Packer tells billionaire Elise Shiffin (Sarah Gaddon), his beautiful wife of some weeks, who in her turn has just noticed, “Your eyes are blue. […] You never told me you were blue-eyed.” Packer hounds her for intercourse in which she is apparently totally uninterested, she smells other sex on him and just manages to be ambivalently concerned. They realise this is not right, and strain for normalcy: “This is good. We’re like people talking. Isn’t this how people talk?”
And it is in these moments that the film’s sly humour flickers and provides a point of identification – who hasn’t felt caught in these types of social performance? It’s oddly reminiscent of a recurrent concern in interior monologue sitcom Peep Show, whose characters constantly watch themselves trying out social roles (“I can genuinely see us eventually reminiscing about this.” “This is the sort of thing people do when they’re having a good time!” and so on).
The humour in Cosmopolis is inevitably not of the most obvious sort, but is present throughout, often locating a gallows hysteria in the world’s absurdities. Humour is a very human coping response to statistics like that unearthed in a 2006 study which revealed that the three richest people in the world, including Bill Gates, have more money than the poorest 48 nations combined. Sure, Cosmopolis is shot and scored like dystopian fiction, but actually, the most terrifying thing about it is that it has absolutely no need to exaggerate; this is effectively dystopian fact. A bald reworking of the first line from the Communist Manifesto swaps Europe for the world and Communism for Capitalism: “A spectre is haunting the world, the spectre of Capitalism”; this is shown as part of an in-movie anti-establishment protest that is as extreme as it needs to be, underlining the point that insanity may be the only sane response to an insane system.
This is also why casting Robert Pattinson in this role is a stroke of genius. Apart from delivering a very fine performance, he is arguably the star currently inspiring some of the least sane responses in our culture. When, at the film’s climax, he is confronted with a maniac insisting “I know everything that’s ever been said or written about you. I know what I see in your face, after years of study,” it’s not hard to appreciate how brilliant – and perhaps cathartic – a role this is for him, one that figuratively interrogates the fame-capital he has accrued so far, Pattinson apparently as interested as Packer in the possibility of re-setting as something else. Casting him could have been a Warhol moment, using the image of an icon to make a point about fame, but Pattinson’s participation is too active to merit this back-handed compliment.
I can only imagine how this film will be looked back on in twenty years; for me, it’s the coming together of source, director and star with a relevance that rarely occurs in cinema.