January 14, 2013

Here in my car I feel safest of all

Finally, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012). I’m not the first person, and I won’t be the last, to have the experience of being baffled and even slightly disappointed on a first viewing of Cosmopolis and much more impressed on a second. In fact, Cosmopolis gives you the rare sensation of looking forward to a second viewing even while you are in the first. On the first viewing, we watched Cosmopolis in a double bill with Looper (second viewing of Looper). There are superficial similarities: you compare and contrast the faces and manners of teen idols Robert Pattinson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; you note that both films take China as the future; you note that while Looper is officially the science-fiction film, it’s actually Cosmopolis that looks more like science-fiction (the interior of the limo is lit up by what look like futuristic jukeboxes or The Fly’s telepods – even the title is a step on from “metropolis”). But Cosmopolis is intensely confined, in both space and time, against the openness (fields, decades) of Looper.

For Don DeLillo fans, to see Cosmopolis – finally – is also to see the results of an experiment that they have anticipated for years. Does DeLillo dialogue sound natural when spoken? You know it reads natural. The answer: no, it doesn’t, at least not here. The delivery is, for the most part, arch and artificial, with Pattinson as deadpan and vampiric as Peter Weller in Naked Lunch (the familiar Cronenberg hero is the man observed in meltdown or breakdown: Weller, James Woods in Videodrome, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Ralph Fiennes in Spider). Vampiric is an obvious word when your star is Pattinson, post-Twilight, and the padded interior of the long white limo that the 28-year-old billionaire capitalist Eric Packer occupies look at times like a luxurious coffin (“You look like someone dead 100 years”). The limo moves, nearly inch by inch, through crowded Manhattan streets, flanked by security guards. It is “safe from penetration”, Packer says, knowingly, surely aware of the Cronenbergian nature of the line. “We are buffered from attack,” is how one of his assistants puts it. The language of combat recurs, and the look as well – two of Cronenberg’s models were Das Boot and Lebanon. The first film was about war from inside a German submarine, the second from inside an Israeli tank. There are real threats: anarchists with rats and cream pies and a more “credible” one to come.

What is the world view and when is the setting? The novel appeared in 2003 and was taken as a post-9/11 comment about the nervous texture of New York City, but the real basis would have been anti-globalisation protests, circa 1999. Arriving when it did, the book felt stranded in time. Ten years on, the film seems more satirical about, or critical of, the world of mega-capital than the novel, and not just because we’ve had the global financial crisis in the meantime. The narrative arc is capitalism’s self-destructiveness – what else is Packer steering his limo towards? There is a repeated line in a rap song from a Sufi rap star’s funeral (one of the other big traffic events in Manhattan on this day): “Death, no matter where you go, will get you.”

Packer takes meetings in his car, like it’s a mobile office. It’s a space for the exchange of ideas, for briefings from the world. It’s completely silent (it’s been “Prousted”, meaning cork-lined). In the film’s first half, the order of these one-on-ones could be juggled and it would make little difference. He takes meetings with his art buyer (Juliette Binoche), his chief of theory (Samantha Morton), his doctor and other flunkies and employees. He runs into his wife (Sarah Gadon) from time to time. The most memorable of the meetings might be with Morton’s theorist who says things like, “Time is a corporate asset now”. More than ever in Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s dialogue is a series of endlessly quotable aphorisms – “One learns about the countries where unrest is occurring by riding the taxis here” – but sometimes that oracular quality is sent up too:
Eric Packer (Pattinson): “I remember what you told me. Talent is more erotic when it is wasted.”
Didi Fancher (Binoche): “What did I mean?”
The film is so faithful to the text that you can almost read along at home, but Cronenberg and DeLillo share an approach too. One of the keys to appreciating DeLillo is to see that he writes about the contemporary world – politics, finance, espionage, terror, sport – in the same way that others write about art and literature. Art always features (thus, action painting during opening credits, Rothko during closing). Packer wants to buy the entire Rothko Chapel not just a single Rothko. The pauses and syntax in a statement by a commerce minister are examined as though the film is about literary critics not financial analysts. Yet, this is also Cronenberg’s most Cronenbergian film in years, even with its incredible fidelity to the novel. The hermetic interior of the limo feels like one of Cronenberg’s borderlands, a feeling familiar from eXistenZ and Naked Lunch – the limo never feels like it’s in the same space as the world outside. There are dreamlike textures, throbbing and glowing surfaces, ridiculous weaponry and a numb and detached guide. Even during the day, it feels like a night world.

A final note on that word “finally”. This film about the speed and immediacy of information in the new world, if you like, debuted at Cannes in May 2012. Sometime in the second half of 2012, viewers in New Zealand learned that Cosmopolis would not get a theatrical release at all – and it’s not alone (at the time of writing, The Master will play only two New Zealand cities, Amour and Holy Motors have not returned after acclaimed festival screenings and Lawless will, like Cosmopolis, go straight to video). Cosmopolis has its New Zealand DVD and blu-ray release on February 20 – a full nine months after Cannes.