Don DeLillo, one of the greatest living authors writing in the English language, working with David Cronenberg, erstwhile purveyor of body horror and a consistently challenging narrative filmmaker, is a collaboration that seemed stylistically destined to be combined. Yet it is more than this missed potential that makes this newly released adaptation of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis a disappointing watch; there is a deeper malaise at play.
In its own unsettlingly peculiar way, Cosmopolis is a sort of road movie, It shows a day in the life of 28-year-old billionaire trader Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), as he makes his tortuous way across 47th Street in Manhattan to get a haircut. The President is in town and a rap star is having a public funeral so the traffic is almost at a standstill, but Packer whimsically insists on making the pilgrimage regardless. Conducting business from his white stretch limousine, Packer recklessly gambles his entire fortune on the Chinese Yuan (changed from the Japanese Yen in the novel), as a series of employees, acquaintances and liaisons pass through his life and limo. Among these are his wife of 22 days, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon); his chief adviser Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton); and his art consultant Didi (Juliette Binoche). As the voyage progresses, Eric’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, a dangerous anarchist protest takes place around his vehicle, and two ‘credible threats’ to his safety are made by shadowy figures.
Cronenberg himself has admitted that there is ‘not much of a plot’, and unsurprisingly this is a major problem. Although Pattinson himself is charismatic and fares generally well in the role of Eric Packer, the film feels claustrophobic, as the majority of the action takes place in the confines of his limo. The whole piece is uncinematic in its sweep. The dialogue, for the most part taken verbatim from DeLillo, is also dubious. Not only is there simply too much of it, which robs the plot of any dynamism, but it is also artificial and mannered. It is replete with Pinter-esque pauses and peppered with the philosophical, aphoristic phrases that the author is famous for: “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself.” I have no problem with the suspension-of-disbelief-testing dialogue of someone like Tarantino, but that is always done in an arch, cinematic way. With Cosmopolis, it certainly looks and reads better than it sounds out loud. With the plot as it is, the Coleridgean suspension of disbelief is already at its very limit; there is no semblance of realism and the film becomes a sort of fantastical parable.
The themes of the film are interesting, as universal technological advancement and the way technology mediates between human beings is arguably more relevant in 2012 than it was in 2003. DeLillo’s earlier ideas regarding the world’s enslavement to business and financial apocalypse also seem eerily prophetic in our post-2008, post-Occupy Wall Street age. Yet the financial aspect is given extremely superficial treatment and little is made of it. Furthermore, without emotional involvement, sadly never on offer from the dead-eyed, surreal automaton that Packer represents, or from any of the excellent supporting cast, the movie becomes a heartless and pointless affair.
The cinematography is unremarkable, adding as it does to an air of cheapness. A startling case in point was the first shot of Packer in his car with a green-screen background that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1950s movie. This may have been a deliberate attempt at something like cinematic metafiction, in bringing attention to the artifice of the piece, but I can see no good reason why it should be thus. For one, mere minutes later, the background looks much better. Why is it just in that first shot? The scanty music also seems like a trite afterthought.
And here we come back to the deeper malaise: the source material. For the DeLillo novel itself is not entirely successful and the plot and characters frustrate in their own way, so this is a likely source of many of the movie’s problems. Though not all. Indeed its best feature, the poetic quality of the prose, is impossible to recreate on screen. As the screenplay is Cronenberg’s own and it was his decision to adapt this near un-filmable work, he must shoulder all of the blame for the failure of the picture. Where interiority and negligible plotting may work in fiction, cinema requires something more; it is a more populist medium and thus needs emotional engagement at some level, not to mention dramatic action. It tries and ultimately fails in this regard.
The books and film’s epitaph, ‘a rat became the unit of currency’, comes from the poem ‘Report from the Besieged City’, by Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. After watching Cosmopolis, I cannot help but wonder if another of its lines, ‘all of this is monotonous I know I can’t move anyone’, might not have been more apt.