Friday, July 20, 2012

A drive of the mind

A young man drifts through Manhattan in a very long, white, soundproof, touch screen-lined limousine, seemingly outfitted for every event save atomic holocaust. He’s not going to office today, and why would he? The limo is everything. It’s his chamber of meditation, chamber of sexual transaction, chamber of commerce. He takes meetings in it. He drinks, pisses, gets his prostate checked in it. He watches the yuan plunge in it. He gets some stern financial advice from trusted colleagues in it— advice he does not take. He just wants a haircut. His name is Eric Packer. He’s handsome, powerful, a self-made billionaire, within the 1% of the 1%, Jay Gatsby meets Mark Zuckerberg, and over the course of Cosmopolis he’s going to let it all go, the money, the car, the marriage to a pretty poet, even the hair. An angry, violent mob fills the streets outside, throwing rats and protesting the failures of capitalism. But there’s only one man amongst them who can touch Eric, one man who constitutes his dumpy double, his sloppy shadow. He’s waiting for Eric and he’s got a gun and Eric seems to be slowly moving right to him, into the heart of darkness.

Directed and faithfully adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel by David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis is talky, idea-riddled, fantastic, at times awkward, at times very funny, mostly quite brilliant. The strength of the novel, far from DeLillo’s best but still crackling with the author’s characteristic flashes of insight and condensed lyricism, is the world that passes beyond the tinted windows of Eric’s roaming castle. DeLillo writes about crowds, American crowds, New York crowds, with rare powers of evocation. His Cosmopolis is drenched in sense of place. His Eric, on the other hand, feels interesting but wholly artificial, a collection of ideas sewn together into an executive golem. The thing about Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is that it completely reverses this emphasis. Cronenberg has never been a naturalist or documentarian. His best films are ablaze with ingenious artifice—it’s his way of getting at truths. Cronenberg’s New York is almost laughably unconvincing. It isn’t New York; it’s a New York state of mind. It’s very obviously Toronto. And it isn’t even Toronto. Or it’s the same Toronto of Videodrome. A meta-place. And an almost palpably dangerous place.

It’s too easy to dismiss Cosmopolis as preposterous and mannered (the dialogue remains the high modernist, tweaked vernacular of DeLillo-speak); you’ve got to just roll with it. The supporting cast makes this easy: Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric, Paul Giamatti and most especially Samantha Morton absorb DeLillo’s cadences with perfect elegance and a cunning sense of how to flush out its sly humour. Even vampire heartthrob Robert Pattison is good as Eric, surprisingly unaffected, a cipher perhaps, but given his character’s transformation, his surrender to the existential, perhaps suicidal abyss, his deadpan seems appropriate. We need to identify with something blossoming virus-like in his psyche that can only gradually be revealed. He does eventually get that haircut, or anyway half a haircut, in the film’s most playful scene, which, not coincidentally, is also the only one with working-class guys in it. But the barber’s is the final stop en route to the underworld, where no amount of grooming can save you. 

1 comment:

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