By Tom Nixon
The gleefully pedantic dialogue of disconnection littering Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel ‘Cosmopolis’ provided the greatest challenge in years for that great adapter of the unadaptables David Cronenberg, and the result may be his finest work of the new millennium to date.
One exchange of DeLillo’s — “This isn’t how people talk.” “How would I know?!” – anticipates what more or less became the foremost criticism levelled at this material, implying that we’re the ones becoming unrecognisable; if we don’t yet see ourselves in these deadened rhythms, we will soon enough. Fair to say that the book’s collective musings might be written by an alien hive-mind of constipated socio-economics scholars, but how might our strings of snarky internet shorthand be perceived by our cultural predecessors if not with that same perplexity?
Cronenberg understands all too well that as we plough ever forward into our not-so-distant cyber-capitalist future, we’re simply replacing the old religions with subtler, more insidious versions of the same, kneeling at the altar of complex linguistic, economical and technological structures designed to exclude the very concept of mortality, absorbing it in “streams of information”. He understands, too, the toll immersion in such systems takes on our humanity, our empathy, our capacity for sincere communication unfiltered by quotation marks and intellectual distance. The scariest dystopian tales aren’t worried about the robots taking over, they’re worried about humans becoming indistinguishable from the robots.
He adapts the novel closely if selectively, but Cronenberg’s tonal and aesthetic control is so absolute, his vision so coherent, that DeLillo’s satirical caricatures become newly convincing and familiar, their oblivious, emotionless technobabble eerily consistent with their surroundings. The Manhattan of Cosmopolis is as fake as they come, a self-consciously digitised blur of half-formed green-screen exteriors which look suspiciously like Toronto if you examine them too closely. Offices overlook an ocean of information, from towers “that soar to heaven and go unpunished by God.” Shiny, fortified limousines filled with flickering screens drift between them like glaciers, “contemptuously oversized“, shutting out “natural causes” along with the thrum of the city. Cronenberg has his host of performers (special mention to the great Samantha Morton, whose scene brought to mind Synecdoche New York in the best possible way) not only inspire certainty that they’re authentic products of these environments, but that they’re driven by the same core impulses as today’s viewer.
The technology and language of this metropolis were conceived to conceptualise and compartmentalise all of existence, break it down into quantifiable pieces easily controlled, easily micro-managed. Robert Pattinson, the world’s most corporate vampire and pale as he’s ever been, is slyly re-cast as a billionaire personification of this impulse, a delusion of immortality by the name of Eric Packer. The U.S. President’s motorcade is nearby, but there’s no doubting who rules this roost; “people still shoot at presidents?” asks a bemused Packer, correctly predicting he’ll be the primary target of any ill intent.
Packer has generated his wealth using an information-processing system based on the patterns of nature, understanding and anticipating so as to conquer, master… evade. Problem is: you don’t beat the digital river, and Packer’s inability to account for the rise of the Chinese Yuan has put his finances in serious jeopardy. Whether this proves the imperfection of his system or indicates intentional sabotage by his own hand, there’s no doubt his cruising fortress resembles less a womb than a tomb these days. He’s been taking the more introspective of his two elevators just recently, developing a weakness for the “philosophical pause“. Most of all, he’s suddenly desperate for a haircut; a haircut at the barbers of his childhood, specifically, which requires a dangerous cross-town excursion through streets littered with funeral processions, violent protestors, ideological pranksters and other threats to his well-being. Not to mention plenty of amorous mistresses, each as much an extension of his voracious hunger as his capital, each increasingly giving him nothing except a palpable sense of what he lacks. He’d rather be loving his wife (Sarah Gadon, so awesome) instead, though he understands nothing of love beyond the abstract, and she’s less than impressed with his spree of erotic encounters (“you reek of sexual discharge“).
Packer needs to revisit this emblem of his past for the same reason he needs to fly his airplane or get tased right in the goddamned ribs; “money has lost its narrative quality,” and so has the life of the man who embodies it. Like a certain other limo-shackled protagonist from 2012, Packer’s actions no longer have a contextual framework to invest them with meaning, not just because the cameras are too small and the beholders too remote but because “money has started talking to itself”. He needs to escape this closed circle of his own rational design, this micro-existence of details and self-referential jargon, so dense and complicated that it no longer has a perceivable connection to the world of which it is an abstraction.
The funniest joke may be that this premise is a mid-life crisis road-trip staple, complete with an A-list heart-throb looking to step out of supernatural sub-genres into the real world. Packer too must connect with the uncomfortable truths he once sought to expel from his consciousness, sabotaging his systems of self-protection and regressing to a state of human vulnerability (we find out later he was a very sickly child), if not death (Mark Rothko is Packer’s favourite painter). Cronenberg may well see Packer as a kindred spirit; his frames order his universe just like Packer’s systems, and the film’s visual palette occupies the uneasy spaces between crumbling plasticity and flawless gloss, reflecting the Apollonian and Dionysian elements warring within his directorial style.
Next, Packer’s doctor (scheduled, naturally, for daily check-ups) finds something wrong with his body, a chink in another of his meticulously polished suits of armour. Parker’s prostate is asymmetrical, alas, and although this is a harmless enough problem compared to those of other Cronenberg protagonists over the years, Packer is profoundly unsettled and more than a little excited. His self-annihilation picks up pace; a water bottle crumples, a pie slathers his face, an empire is falling to ruin. Old money devours itself, while outside the rats eat the rats eat the rats. When he finally reaches his barber, a serene relic from a lost past, he has his hair cut one side but not the other; another juvenile, synthetic gesture against the oppressive symmetry he’s lived by for so long.
Of course, such gestures are hopelessly inadequate. All that’s left is to confront Benno Levin, the assassin who’s shadowed him since journey’s beginning. He represents the working classes with whom Packer is so out of touch, and of course he’s also a projection of Packer’s mortal fear (“even your gun is a fantasy“), played with erratic, pent-up rage by Paul Giamatti. The two indulge in a bitter, anxious, curious dialogue – a monologue if you like. A bullet is fired, no real understanding is reached; Packer can’t change (“want a cigarette?” asks Levin, “want a drink?” comes the business-savvy trader’s reply). Packer realises that he “should’ve listened to [his] prostate”, understood that this world isn’t as manageable as he once believed, but recognising his mistakes does nothing to rectify them now. In the novel DeLillo writes of Packer: “when he died he would not end. The world would end.” Cronenberg also cuts before the resolution; he knows that cinema is just another thread in the fabric of our new religion, talking to itself just like the currencies funding its releases. To watch Packer die would be to violate the very structures of the movie and of our perception, an apocalypse of the medium and the soul. Even so, Cronenberg warns, it’s an event that would appear to be imminent.
Cronenberg’s new film Maps to the Stars is due later this year, touted as a dark, savagely funny Hollywood-based satire of celebrity culture. That film too will star Pattinson, and will hopefully grace Cannes. Don’t be surprised if it ends up one of the cinematic events of the decade – or, alternatively, another audacious, provocative misfire destined for rabid cult canonisation. In the meantime, you could do worse than revisit Cosmopolis, this monument to a zeitgeist of “holes” and “shit”. Every moment is recognisably and alarmingly our own, pulsating with a generation’s vague terror and repressed longing as it weighs up the spiritual toll of “the spectre that’s haunting the world”. It’s undeniably Cronenberg’s, too, its characters’ existential crises catalysing an attempted reconnection between physical and psychological, emotional and conceptual, in a society built to bridge them apart. There’s more than a whiff of Videodrome as every claustrophobic space, every stilted sentence, every self-conscious symbol or glimmering screen seems the externalisation of a contemporary, even futuristic, mind-set, ‘til you notice it’s just another expression of those same ol’ insectile urges. The shift to digital has re-invigorated Cronenberg’s obsessions with a newly subversive kick, though, and Cosmopolis has the feel of something visionary. Better to catch it before it leaves us behind.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.