05.27.12

The Crush for Cronenberg’s Cannes Competition Entry, ‘Cosmopolis’

Michael Haneke’s Amour may have won the Palme d’Or, but David Cronenberg’s competition entry provided plenty of intrigue: an appearance by seldom seen author Don DeLillo, a reinvented star in Robert Pattinson—and a surprisingly topical subject. Richard Porton reports from Cannes.

Before the beginning of the Cannes press conference on Friday for David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, veteran festival moderator Henri Behar warned the assembled journalists not to ask any questions about vampires or werewolves. The result of this blatant plea to refrain from barraging Robert Pattinson, the film’s star, with queries about his Twilight persona was fascinating. The tabloid press seemed distraught that they couldn’t focus on the teen heartthrob role Pattinson is known for. (When a British journalist asked Pattinson about implicit comparisons between his Twilight antics and his Cosmopolis role as a rapacious moneyman, Cronenberg assailed the question as “flawed.”) Conversely, the broadsheets appeared thrilled to ask questions of Don DeLillo, the distinguished novelist whose book provided the departure point for Cronenberg’s movie.

DeLillo’s public appearances are few and far between, and his diffident, thoughtful persona certainly was at odds with the festival’s celebrity-infatuated atmosphere. The author is known for dark fables such as Libra and Underworld that chronicle the dystopian aftermath of the 1960s, and Cosmopolis focuses on a day in the life of wealthy assets manager Eric Packer (Pattinson) as he zigzags through Manhattan in his stretch limousine. The trajectory includes encounters with various women and innumerable absurdist conversations peppered with the impenetrable jargon of high finance.

Stretch limos figure prominently in another Cannes competition entry, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. In both films, these vehicular behemoths are emblems of our current decadence. Carax refers to them as “completely in tune with our times—both showy and tacky. They’re outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past … they mark the end of an era, the era of large visible machines.”

Cronenberg seems to imply that the era of fabulous wealth and conspicuous consumption that predates the Great Recession may have reached the end of its tether. Eric rides in what both the novel and film call a “Prousted” limousine, a reference to the cork-lined room of novelist Marcel Proust where Remembrance of Things Past was written. In other words, Eric, supposedly a financial master of the universe, is cut off from reality in his inner sanctum on wheels. Protected by a security chief who is also in some respects a jailer, Eric sees the world through the observations of handpicked experts. Many of these cynical pundits nevertheless grasp the quasi-surreal aspects of the ongoing financial morass.

Cronenberg, who can certainly lay on the visual pyrotechnics when he feels the urge to do so, rightly believes that a restrained style is not equivalent to an absence of style.

Although Cosmopolis was published in 2003, long before the housing bubble burst in 2008, DeLillo forecast the dynamics of the current instability in a speech by Eric’s co-worker Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire) that surfaces nearly verbatim in the movie: “There’s a rumor it seems involving the finance minister…Some kind of scandal about a misconstrued comment….The whole country is analyzing the grammar and syntax of this comment. Or it wasn’t even what he said. It was when he paused. They are trying to construe the meaning of the pause.”

DeLillo couldn’t have been more on target. Three days ago, a financial columnist named Claire Trevett opened a piece on the economic situation in New Zealand by claiming that “one of the best traditional Budget games is interpreting the cryptic hints dropped by finance ministers in the lead-up to the big day.”

This is not the only sequence where Cronenberg employs large patches of DeLillo’s dialogue. Cosmopolis’s mordantly witty exchanges, which Cronenberg compares to playwright Harold Pinter’s repartee, cascade trippingly off the tongues of Pattinson, Hampshire, Sarah Gadon, Juliette Binoche, and Paul Giamatti. Some critics have complained that this dialogue-heavy film is static, theatrical, and uncinematic. But Cronenberg, who can certainly lay on the visual pyrotechnics when he feels the urge to do so, rightly believes that a restrained style is not equivalent to an absence of style and that, in any case, trenchant words can often have a more lasting impact. Celebrated early in his career for inventive low-budget horror films incorporating garish special effects, he has now pared his cinematic modus operandi down to the bone.

Pattinson seems to relish the opportunity to shed his image as a matinee idol and portray a predatory capitalist. Although far from the only young actor who could be envisioned as Eric, he is certainly effective in a less than sympathetic role. Gadon, who also appeared as Carl Jung’s wife in A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg’s last feature, imbues Packer’s wife, Elise Shifrin, with a combination of subtle intelligence and cool beauty. Giamatti, however, delivers the film’s most dynamic performance as Benno Levin, an enraged man whose anguished tirades sum up the apocalyptic mood of a society experiencing an ongoing crisis.

In the film, as in the novel, anarchist protesters echo Marx and Engels’s observation in The Communist Manifesto that a “specter is haunting Europe.” For the militants in the film, like the activists in Occupy Wall Street, the specter haunting North America is not so much communism as the vision, however inchoate at times, of an alternative to the entrenched hierarchical system that brought on an economic cataclysm. But Cosmopolis is not a piece of agitprop. DeLillo, following the arguments put forth by Eric’s “theorist” Vija Kinski (played by Samantha Morton in the movie), has a rather jaundiced, even fatalistic outlook. In the Cosmopolis press book, he said groups like Occupy Wall Street are “the direct offspring of Wall Street and capitalism, and that they contribute to refresh and readjust the system…Occupy Wall Street hasn’t reduced the astronomical bonuses raked in by corporate executives.” Yet he said he also believes that the Occupy movements are only the beginning of what will be ongoing social ferment and that he is convinced despondency is not the only option.

Cronenberg was asked at the press conference if there was an antidote to the despair that appears to suffuse this surprisingly topical competition entry. He replied that the fact the film got made at all is grounds for optimism. In a film industry dominated by blockbuster franchises, such as the one Robert Pattinson dominates, it’s encouraging that a relentlessly downbeat if intermittently witty movie such as Cosmopolis can see the light of day.