Cosmopolis | Accelerating Into the Void

U.K. poster for David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” (2012), based on Don DeLillo’s novel.

“Today’s violence, the violence produced by our hypermodernity, is terror. A simulacrum of violence, emerging less from passion than from the screen: a violence in that nature of the image … We are dealing, therefore, not with irrational episodes in the life of our society, but instead with something that is completely in accord with that society’s accelerating plunge into the void.”

Jean Baudrillard, “The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena” (1990)

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
Cosmopolis (2012)

David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” is the damnedest journey ever taken to get a haircut. Admittedly, I come at Cronenberg’s film from a different viewpoint than most film-goers. For one, I’ve watched nearly every Cronenberg film (enjoying “Videodrome”, “Crash”, “eXistenZ”, “Naked Lunch”, The Fly”, and “History of Violence”) but I’m more of a Don DeLillo expert, having read every one of the author’s books. It was no surprise to see Cronenberg use DeLillo’s dialogue verbatim. No sense in messing with the writing of a genius, right? “Cosmopolis” isn’t DeLillo’s best work, but it is fascinating, as all of the writer’s work is. And the same could be said of the film. At its root, it’s a story about a 28-year-old billionaire named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), who seems to have little emotional attachment to anything but numbers, money, and trying to get a haircut all the way across town in a city that resembles New York. That’s the vehicle for the story. As the film begins, Packer stands on the sidewalk and declares in the kingly third-person, “We need a haircut.” He sits at the back of his limousine, in a seat that resembles a throne, with all kinds of screens and gadgetry around him. The movie plays like a string of vignettes.

Juliette Binoche as Didi Fancher, seducing Eric Packer.

We first meet his friend, Shiner (Jay Baruchel), presumably a young business partner who helped him when his enterprise was a startup. And from there, we’re introduced to characters who at times just seem to appear in his limo without any segue. Sometimes they’re seen outside the limo and they get in, others just appear while the automobile is crawling through city gridlock. We meet Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche), Packer’s art dealer, a mistress with whom he has sex in the limo amid discussing a Rothko purchase. There’s Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire), his chief financial officer and an avid runner, who gets off as his talks dirty to her while receiving an in-limo prostate exam. We’re introduced to his wife of 22 days, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), a poet, who is distant, withholding of sex, and who keeps reminding Packer that she can smell the extramarital trysts on him. (“You absolutely reek of sexual discharge.”) There’s Torval (Kevin Durand), his bodyguard, who protects Packer, as the violence around the limo escalates, and protestors burn things, piss on the limo, chuck pop bottles, scribble graffiti across the windows, and toss rats. (The latter of which Packer jokes would make an interesting unit of U.S. currency.) Samantha Morton plays Vija Kinski, Packer’s wordy and erudite chief of theory. It’s a wonderful hodge-podge of characters, all with weighty things to say. The further the limo goes toward its crosstown destination (a barbershop), the wilder and more violent the outside world, much like how Joseph Conrad’s Charles Marlow sees the wilderness around him grow denser as he travels toward Central Station to meet Mr. Kurtz in the novel “Heart of Darkness”.

DeLillo’s novels generally circle around a number of touchstones. The most familiar to readers, is DeLillo’s fascination with events that generate large crowds or mass movements. In his novel, “Mao II”, it’s a mass-wedding orchestrated by the Moonies for 6,500 couples in a stadium. In “Underworld”, the opening chapter centers around a collective, shared event: A fictional character, Cotter Martin, who sneaks into a baseball game that occurred in real life on October 3, 1951, when the New York Giants played the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. In “White Noise”, it’s an airborne toxic event. “Libra” is a singular fictional story about Lee Harvey Oswald, but its foundation is mass conspiracy. DeLillo’s also touches on other vast themes: group-thought, isolation, simulacra, consumerism, paranoia, catastrophe, mass violence, terrorism, and how to live and think in a mad mad world.

Thematically, “Cosmopolis” is a story about a type of convergence, more than it is about an event. It’s about the movement of culture, and its descent into acquisition, disunion, sexualization, and a severing of interaction between human beings, mostly due to its surrogate, technological communication. Over the course of reading DeLillo, it’s easy to see the writer has read much of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s works. Baudrillard believed that the world was accelerating into a void. Yes, he describes that phrase in an essay about modern terrorism, but it’s a complex theory that also applies to general violence, greed, world power struggles, media saturation, and the merger of the real and the hyper-real — like the difference between companies making actual products and the modern world of Wall Street and finance which seems to exist as electronic ether. DeLillo has literally put us into the cushy-leather interior of Baudrillard’s acceleration, albeit in a slow-moving limo. It’s a world where, as Packer shows, fiber-optic nanoseconds can mean the difference between a Wall Street business being able to act more quickly than another to make millions of dollars. It’s a world without heart, and spirituality is nothing but a belief in polychrome pulsing numbers, endless streams of data, and our predicative powers to acquire cash as an end in itself.

At the heart of this film is detachment from anything real. Human interaction is done via screens, phones, and talking business. It’s a clever thing Cronenberg does when he has the characters simply appear in the limo, without a real introduction. Doing that emphasizes separation. Critic Roger Ebert described the characters as “bloodless, their speech monotone”. True enough, but Pattinson actually performs Packer in a way that seems thematically right on. There’s also a revealing moment in an extra provided on the EntertainmentOne DVD release of the film. The disc contains a very long look at how the film was made (“Citizens of Cosmopolis Featurette”), including being able to watch every actor as they try out their scenes. In one scene, Morton gets frustrated, and can’t seem to deliver her lines. She’s inside the fake limo, talking with Packer, and an angry mob (i.e., studio extras) are shaking the limo back and forth to simulate the protestors in the film. It’s no wonder the scene was so difficult for her to do. At one point, she flubs a line, and apologizes to Cronenberg multiple times. She says something about not understanding the lines and how the sentences “all just seem to run together” in her mind. Cronenberg chuckles because he knows what Morton doesn’t at that time, that she’s encapsulated the effect of the dialogue succinctly. DeLillo creates worlds, he isn’t trying to replicate one. His dialogue, and his uncanny knack for being prescient about culture and history are his grandest gifts. (He wrote about the destruction of the World Trade Towers before it happened. The original cover of his book “Underworld” also featured a photo of the towers, but has since been changed in the reprinting.) It’s dialogue and language that is at the root of many of his characters’ epiphanies. It’s also this heightened and severely-stylized dialogue that draws our attention to the overlaying and underlying meaning (or lack thereof) in words. DeLillo is a master of the seemingly throw-away aphorism, like, “Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”

There’s a scene where Packer’s chief financial officer says, “I want to go home and tongue-kiss my Maxima.” Now that may seem like a slightly funny or bizarre thing to say. But that line is reminiscent of one out of DeLillo’s “White Noise”, where a father catches his daughter muttering words in her sleep, “… Toyota Celica”. The father believes the words take on a sort of mantra-like quality in the repetition. There are so many revelations in this episode, with a variety of ironies. If you repeat a pretty-sounding phrase enough, forgetting what the words connote, it can become revelatory. It’s a type of transcendence. But there’s also something here about the death of irony, and humanity’s depressing appreciation for false significance. (Note the mass-mourning of Brotha Fez.) The repetition itself or the sound of the words are nothing, but we imbue them with a meaning it doesn’t have, much like DeLillo’s vaunted “World’s Most Photographed Barn” in the same novel or the phase continually uttered by Packer throughout the film “Cosmopolis”: “My prostate is asymmetrical.”

There’s something to be said about Ebert’s suggestion that the film is cold, heartless and too abstract. Well, he’s right, to a degree. But it’s all purposeful. “Cosmopolis” is a film that stymies. Like many of Cronenberg’s other films, at least it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. (Well, excepting “Holy Motors”, that is.) It will astound some, and confound others. The film begins with a definition of the word “Cosmopolis”. It’s a mix of two words, “polis”, the Greek for city and “cosmos”, the harmonious universe. But what DeLillo writes about in the novel, and Cronenberg shows in the film, is that it’s our mind that tries to order what is in fact uncontrollable chaos. It’s a decent into the void, and we just don’t know it. Packer’s fortune is quickly melting away, millions a minute, as he searches for illusive meaning. He finds moderate comfort in screens at the tip of his hands, a controlled environment inside his limousine, and thoughts of calculable prime numbers. But his chief of theory, Kinski, says people want to believe “there are foreseeable trends and forces … When in fact it’s all random phenomena. You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions … The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.”

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