It is the first time a father and son both have a film at Cannes: David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis and son Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral.
The difference between the two directors is not favorable to the son: Antiviral did not get more than an "It's all right" at the press screening -- if that.
Brandon looked a bit sheepish as he and his father chatted together after his premiere. He seems to have purposefully set himself up for a fall, however, by choosing a theme and a story close to his father's pet subjects: a sci-fi about people wanting to be infected with viruses from celebrities. "Oh I am a clone of my father," Brandon quipped, smiling, when asked to comment on what motivated his story.
Or perhaps his would-be rival? The film is entitled Antiviral.
Asked to comment on the difference between his own experience with Cannes and his son's, David Cronenberg's response was trenchant:
"It took me twenty years to get a film in Cannes; my son was invited. I first came to Cannes in 1971. I was living in the south of France, because a friend of mine, a brother in law, was living there, in a medieval town, with 900 inhabitants. I lived there for a year, and I made two underground films, and I wasn't sure that I was interested in a career in film necessarily; I aspired to be a novelist. I thought the Cannes festival is on; just go to Nice and come down.
Cannes was a real shock, because I was living in a small town. I did not even know how to cross the Croisette with all the traffic. And then the Ferraris, the Sean Connery posters! What was great was the market atmosphere, like a drug market with deals being made on the sidewalk. The tip of the iceberg was the official selection, but under the iceberg were thousands of films, and this was a real education. A production company (Telefilm) had an office in the Carlton Hotel, and they let me sleep there in the night, on the floor. That was my introduction to Cannes.
As for Brandon: he is here officially. It is quite a different intro to the festival. "
Unlike his son's flat attempt, David Cronenberg's new film, based on Don Delillio's novel Cosmopolis, shows that the director (still) powerfully cares about his art. Cosmopolis depicts a world so skewed by capitalism that rats are about to become the unit of currency.
The main rat in this film: a lost individual named Eric Packer, played by the actor Robert Pattinson (known for his vampire role in the film Twilight). Parker's aim in the film is simple: he wants to get a haircut.
David Cronenberg explained this aim to journalists: "Everything builds as he moves towards that very personal goal, a goal which is not realized. There is no enormous movement of capitalist avarice. He is trying to escape his own life, to go back to the innocence, the purity, of his childhood."
The search is urgent as money has become a system in which every character is trapped, including the billionaire. Capitalism has destroyed the sense of the present: time no longer has value, except as a means to get rich. "Everyone lives thinking they can become rich in the next twenty seconds."
As usual for a Cronenberg movie, the shots are masterful: crisp scenes of New York City sidewalks, with just two snazzy men standing. Or the interior of a long white limousine, with Juliette Binoche straddling our main character.
But what makes the film brilliant is the startling dialogue, taken, the director confided, directly from DeLillo's novel. "Life is too contemporary," says one character. "I have become an enigma to myself," says another. The dialogue makes one want to go out and buy the book immediately.
As DeLillo later told us: all his work "is about living in dangerous times. The '60s, '70s, the era of enormous turmoil, the assassinations..."
And now finance.
If one thing makes the movie lose verve midway through, however, it is the fact that it does become a bit talky: like staged text. When effective, this choice adds to the claustrophobia of the atmosphere. Don DeLillo commented: "I felt claustrophobic writing it."
But the film is even more claustrophobic:
"Despite the similarity beween book and film, they are totally different life forms," DeLillo commented, "When seeing the film, I wasn't looking at images from my novel, I was looking at actors speaking lines. I was struck by the fact that David dd not move action out of the limousine, for the cinematic sake of it. He brought scenes into the limousine."
Cronenberg spoke calmly about his artistic choice: his scenes are not theater (i.e., staged text), he noted, because the camera dominates; it moves close to the actors. "The essence of cinema is a face speaking. Not the Grand Canyon, not epic. But a fantastic face speaking. I focus on that."
The film might falter in dramatic tension, but it does succeed in making us feel that we are all caught in a growing monster of a capitalist system. The only salvation, for the main character, is a perverted Christian sacrifice (the character gives himself, in effect, the stigmata).
Could David Cronenberg please offer us some hope, beyond a false Christ?
"Hope is embodied by fact that this movie got financed. It is not easy to get a film like this made. Today's films are conservative. Not edgy. The hope is in the art. The film was made with great affection, with attention to detail. That is where the hope is. That we are still challenging ourselves and questioning."
Robert Pattinson interjected: "Yes, finance has an absurd disproportion of power, but the world does not end. I think the world has to be washed and cleansed. That's what happens at the end..."
He laughed -- and pointed at me. "So you're wrong! This is a very hopeful movie!"