“Life is too contemporary,” Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) tells Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) after they’ve just had sex in the back of his limousine.
That seems to be the global concern in “Cosmopolis,” a headlong plunge into a dystopian urban milieu of greed, corruption, technology, nihilism, you name it. The film’s network of characters–small but pivotal roles played by such seasoned actors as Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Mathieu Amalric, Samantha Morton and Jay Baruchel–can’t escape their moment, when even the word “computer” is archaic and the world is poised to bottom out.
Attractive, dissolute and too rich for his own good, Eric needs a haircut. That’s what he tells his driver in the first scene of the film. Holding an indiscriminate position of power managing international currencies, Eric lives his life in a decked-out stretch limo replete with alcohol and women who he tosses like crumpled receipts.
It’s a problem that Eric wants his haircut on the same day the United States president has arrived in Manhattan, and the same day a celebrity funeral is being held. While seated in the back of his limo as the world roars around him, Eric makes his way across town to a barbershop, all the while encountering an eccentric cast of characters, all of whom seem to blow a fuse in his presence. From his cork-lined, soundproofed vehicle, Eric watches as wild anarchists tout the words of Karl Marx (“a specter is haunting the world”) and fling sewer rats at citizens.
Lately Canadian director David Cronenberg is tending toward talkier films, heavy on dialogue and discourse. “Cosmopolis,” like “A Dangerous Method” (2011), imagines pseudo-intellectual characters prattling on about The Human Condition. But unlike “Method,” which reduced its characters to pint-sized archetypes of psychoanalysis, “Cosmopolis” digs deep. The film is arranged episodically, as characters appear briefly and are unlikely to show again—although Giamatti’s character, Eric’s madcap employee, circulates with menace along the film’s fringes.
Cronenberg, long pegged for his artful dwellings on the human body and its (per)mutations, has written his first screenplay since “eXistenZ” (1999). While the material is based on literary titan Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, Cronenberg’s penmanship is clear, as lines bounce off one another like electrically-charged molecules, with pregnant pauses that situate the banter in a realm outside reality. The film bristles and crackles with ideas and insight, however half-baked or preposterous, about the world at large.
This talkfest’s fizzy prose matches the cold anatomy of the mise-en-scene. Heady verbal jousting and dramaturgy aside, “Cosmopolis,” like any Cronenberg film, is a visual experience. Outside the confines of Eric’s uber-glam limousine is a world of unfeeling chaos, where danger looms in close proximity. Though we never quite understand what it is exactly that Eric does, the insistent reminder that everyone is out to get him assures us that he is Important, with little to do.
While Cronenberg has elicited nuanced, naturalistic performances from the likes of Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Naomi Watts (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”), he often teases out intentionally stilted performances from his leads (“Crash,” 1996). As Eric, the brooding Pattinson eroticizes every move, glance and revolver-spin. Travis Bickle is gliding beneath his dead stare. Although the profligate Eric professes ideas and obsessions, he is ultimately a wannabe nihilist. He asks one of his many girlfriends (Patricia McKenzie) to tase him, because he’s ready for something new, because he wants to feel something besides empty sex and asymptotic human connection. A person who has everything, in effect, has nothing. That doesn’t make Eric a deep person but, in the film’s final stretches as he confronts his fate, something is roiling beneath that dark, handsome shell.
However much “Cosmopolis” taps into the economic zeitgeist, the film is removed from reality; Cronenberg has dreamed up another world where logic and ideology are nil. With his latest effort, the auteur surveys all of his fetishes and packs them into one slick, streamlined movie. But like good sci-fi, every element rings prescient, drawing upon our fears and anxieties as a species and a civilization. Zizek said that the cinema doesn’t show us what to desire, but tells us how we desire. Cronenberg knows that a specter haunts “Cosmopolis”: our own imagination.
Canada’s Entertainment One acquired the film before Cannes; stateside release plans are not set.