DAVID CRONENBERG’S “COSMOPOLIS” AND ITS INDICTMENT OF CAPITALISMBy Greggory Moore
In case you’re otherwise unsure what Cosmopolis is about—at least if you boil it down to a catchy phrase—director David Cronenberg gives it to you in neon lights: A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD—THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM. If you’re turned off by such prominent employment of maxims, stay away from Cosmopolis—it’s chock full of ‘em.
This doesn’t mean Cronenberg and Dom Delillo (on whose novel the Cosmopolis is based) are simply being pretentious and pedantic; it’s just that for two hours you’re subjected to a lot of such talk. After all, other than talk, what is going to happen inside an impossibly infomatic, cork-lined, stretch limo, the setting for more than half the film? Well, besides some sex and an extended proctology exam … yes, really. (Cosmopolis makes good use of the phrase, “Your prostate is asymmetrical.”) Cronenberg may have grown beyond his need to insert at least one moment of Kafkaesque, drippingly mutant corporeality into each film, but that doesn’t mean he’s gotten shy about the flesh.
But Cosmopolis traffics mostly in the realm of ideas, the Zeitgeist of capitalist theory as it has come to dominate our world from ever fewer power centers, centers that telescope down far more narrowly than to the scale of New York City, down to where a shot from Google street view might capture a locus controlling wealth equivalent to the GNP of a small country.
In the world of Cosmopolis, one of those centers is Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old asset manager, who during the course of a single day, as he is driven at a crawl across town to get a haircut he doesn’t necessarily need, loses hundreds of millions of dollars betting against the value of the yen—all while his supposedly impregnable personal security force (shown to be anything but in an unexpected blast of true hilarity) tracks a “credible threat” against his life amidst the turmoil caused by the presence of a presidential motorcade, the funeral procession of a beloved Sufi rap star, and an anti-capitalist riot.
If it sounds like Cronenberg is bidding to be the new Fellini, well, cool. The surreality of the proceedings, as well as the studied absurdity of the dialogue, display a director who is continuing down a cinematic career path that has become far more nuanced and compelling since the fork in the road he first took in 2002 with eXistenZ (although 1991′s Naked Lunch was an early flash of glory) and hit full stride three years later with A History of Violence. Once upon a time you could be forgiven for complaining that Cronenberg was merely a somewhat stylish, idiosyncratic artist. No more.
That said, even a lot of people who are gaga over A History of Violence and 2007′s Eastern Promises are going to hate—or at least be frustrated by—Cosmopolis, with its talkiness and undifferentiated flood of socioeconomic palaver. “You know how shameless I am in the presence of anything calling itself a theory,” says one of Packer’s employees, bordering on an apology for the glut.
But there’s method to the seeming madness, even if the point is merely to expose it for the madness it is, a madness that has infected the whole of the Western world. “I thought you were going to save me!” cries a potential assassin (played with a perfect pathos by Paul Giamatti). His words are directed at Packer but indict capitalism, itself, for failings in our historical time and place—failings which may become greater still—that keep Karl Marx in the game, even if the systems that founded themselves upon his rock didn’t deliver as promised.
Marx’s 1848 proclamation that Europe was haunted by communism took on an unintended sense, as a series of despotic regimes evoked Marx’s revolutionary ideals to set up totalitarian shop. Through the lens of Cosmopolis, Delillo/Cronenberg are observing that something similar has happened to capitalism. “I have become an enigma to myself,” Packer says, quoting Saint Augustine. “And herein lies my sickness.”
Founded on the principle of liberty, the free market—as presented in Cosmopolis, at least—has become an enslaving force, and perhaps the only way to restore meaning to our lives is to kill off the cult of economics, to lay that perturbed spirit to rest.
Cosmopolis doesn’t offer any answers, but it damn well highlights a big problem, producing a curiously compelling piece of cinema along the way.
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