THE BLOG
02/15/2013 09:02 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

Cosmopolis on DVD & On-Screen, Tonight @ Museum of The Moving Image

As part of their "Best of 2012" series, the good folks at MOMI are screening David Cronenberg's film adaptation of the great Don Delilo's 2000 novel, Cosmopolis. Both are worth your time. Note to purists: skip this review, the film, and read the book first.

SYNOPSIS: A 28 year-old titanic whiz-kid of world currency speculation-slash-trading succumbs to the angst of an unceasing post-adolescence -- or perhaps an accelerated mid-life crisis -- and turns his Mondrian life into a Rothko, via the wager of his own several billions fortune (and by definition, those of others) against the value of China's Yuan, a trade whose merits, remedy and implications he discusses from various perspectives during separate visits (nearly all in his limo-as-Olympus -- "limolympus"?) with his advisors and analysts -- two currency, one tech, one theory, an art dealer, and his wife, during a storyline-grounding quest for a cross-town haircut amidst violent mass protests and a death threat.

Styled after Jackson Pollock's work, Cosmopolis's action-painting opening is itself a meditation on the relationship between chaos and order, logic and nature, algorithms and anomalies, over which we hear what sounds like the yawning, opening strains of U2's "With Or Without You", melting into something rather like an exquisite elevator-music (and I don't mean this pejoratively) version of the opening build and rush to "Where The Streets Have No Name".

At the press conference for the disappointing A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg mentioned that he was proud to have been able to include in one (diorama-like) scene, lookalikes for the cream of the Psychoanalytical community, circa the early 19th century. For the terrifically more successful (in this fan's opinion) Cosmopolis, Cronenberg delivers nearly an entire film-as-diorama, insofar as 80% of the film takes place in a white stretch limousine, site of rolling confabs twixt the aforementioned suzerain and his hi-tech lieges, analysts of another sort, peopling the diorama: a cadre of late 20th century global elites of a sort.

Eric Packer (a last name which brought to mind The Jungle) possesses an expansive (perhaps appropriately) Frankenstein-ish brain case, with a large forehead (a recurring DeLilo trait, in both senses of the word, that is to say an occasional characteristic in his work and more frequently, on his own visage) that pushes high enough for silent film roles. When he nano-tabulates, his noggin demi-gesticulates, like Max Headroom's or like footage of a nearly-still object sped up very fast so each movement has a spasmodic feel to it. Enhanced by pancake make-up (?), the Twilight Saga heartthrob seems eternally morbid, perhaps now in the service of a different kind of vampirism. Nonetheless, those eyebrows are likely meant for comedy sooner or later. Perhaps he'll be playing Buster Keaton in the biopic. Although he at times overplays this calculating visage, Robert Pattinson makes the character memorable (hence, again, my suggestion that one read the book first).

Effectively transcribing the book's pages, Cronenberg really succeeds in a controlled effort to not glamorize nor make (too) slick the pure dialogue (à la The Social Network's occasional over-slickness), which is a challenge, since nearly all of the book's and the film's dialogue is conversation-as-calculus; consequently, the moments when his character breaks character -- which is to say, the billionaire is desperate, defensive, loses his cool, or is vulnerable (respectively: insisting he be allowed to bid on the Rothko chapel which is not for sale; self-justifying to a younger colleague; groin-kicking a pie-throwing protestor; sitting in the barbershop where his father worked), are Pattinson's best, and they serve as important accelerators in this film about people who never break character.

As if hosting a talk show, (his own episode of "This Is Your Life", as it were) he consults with his employees, in his rolling think-tank. They all speak in a clipped tone, because every moment is in unique flux: life is a series of quantitative outcomes, in a universe where, as Eric puts it: "A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable" -- a bit of dialogue which, though in-book, is perhaps a sentence too many in the film; context is furnished more organically by one of his currency analysts, who, while updating Eric on the day's woes, encapsulates their milieu in her observation that a speech by the head of the IMF has the inhabitants of their world in a state of high anxiety over whether "it was a pause, or a throat-clear" he made during his address.

The film opens with a warning from his security chief, Torval (Kevin Durand) about cross-town traffic, resultant of presidential death-threats. Durand's Baby-face Finnster visage (with permanently semi-pursed lips that make him appear to have been weaned on a pickle) and gentle, cracking voice belie a capacity for state-of-the-art violence, and his face, mildly pockmarked and creased along the sides of his lips like a ventriloquist dummy, give him an additional wooden-ness. To Eric, he is a gentle giant, and when he speaks calmly and sarcastically of an all-day drive requiring cookies and milk, his lips purse, and his dainty overbite set in his fairly large head punctuate his affection for his client. It would be interesting to see Durand cast in a lead role as another gentle giant; say, a recovering alcoholic high-school coach. Eric, in accordance with his bang-per-buck never-ending life-as-calculus mindset, asks if presidents are still high-value targets.

The first colleague we meet is Shiner, Eric's tech-chief, who is also his friend from before they were rich. He still has, as Cronenberg notes in the DVD, one foot in the regular world, and in his befuddlement over Packer's changing behavior, he emerges sort of like Manolo to Tony, Saverin to Zuckerberg, or Woz to Jobs. Harried by Eric's paranoia, he asks, "You ever get the feeling sometimes that you don't know what's going on?" -- a question constituting, perhaps the 1%'s reversal of Johnny Rotten's: "You ever get the feeling you been cheated?"

As Shiner says this, the un-realness of the green-screen world works very nicely in the service of manifesting Eric's sense of distance from the world. I loved the artifice; it felt like the claustrophobia of one of my favorite Cronenberg films, eXistenZ, and also like the ominous posterization from those great 80s videos by Adam & The Ants. The sense that this all takes place in a production studio, rather than an actual location, gives it a Dogville-ishness. In fact, Cosmopolis would make a great play, and should be staged (I'd love to see DeLilo direct). I'll note that Cosmopolis is one of my favorite films from 2012, and it is the only one that I have not seen on the big screen.

When they pass a red digital ticker which reads "A specter is haunting the world, the specter of capitalism", I was reminded of the late eighties (or early nineties?), when The Downtown Museum for Contemporary Art (I think) sent a limo out onto the streets of New York, its windows flashing Basquait-esque Zen koans on fame, celebrity, money.

We next meet Didi Fancher, Eric's art-dealer, played by Juliet Binoche, who relishes the role; when she alternates from a wizened sex partner and confidante of sorts, to expressing cool heartbreak and an understated gall in her condemnation of Eric (who crassly instructs her to bid any price for the Rothko chapel, which is not for sale) she reminded me of the great Romy Schneider's (Lauren Bacall-esque) cynical appraisal of men, say in Claude Sautét's César and Rosalie or Max And The Junkman. Binoche's character also evokes what it would be like if she had been cast in the role of Sabine, instead of Tereza, and if Sabine had moved to the east coast, instead of California, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

During Binoche's scene, Cronenberg explains in his commentary that the monitors and screens which lined the limo in-book, were not included for budgetary reasons, and in their absence, the screen was calmed down. Awash in blue light, the limo's panels emerges kind of like a mini Rothko chapel, filled instead with Yves Klein's blue canvases -- or scenes from Derek Jarman's Blue.

Eric explains to her that on this day, he is wasting his fortune, referencing something she once told him: "Talent is more erotic when it's wasted" -- and it's worth noting, by way of another A Dangerous Method reference, that in Freudian theory, "Eros" is the life instinct often contrasted with the death-urge, Thanatos; in Jungian theory, "Eros" is the personal relatedness to human activities, and is often associated with the anima, the feminine side to man, often contrasted with Logos, God. Later in the film this is also referenced when Eric speaks with his master of theory who points out that he believes the same thing as the anarchist protestors outside: destruction is creation.

By way of a final note on A Dangerous Method: although I usually can't adapt to Brits doing eastern european accents (like Danielle Day-Lewis in the aformentioned The Unbearable Lightness of Being) Keira Knightley's portrayal of Sabina Spielrein, who developed this theory of death-urge as creative-urge (from which Freud borrowed) could be the basis for a feature film. (Facets have released a dynamite documentary on DVD, My Name Was Sabina Spielrein.

À la Holden Caulfield not wanting to share beauty, Eric declares that he wants to buy the Rothko chapel, which is a fitting purchase for a currency speculator, insofar as Rothko did not actually paint the canvases himself. Rebuffed by Binoche, who says it belongs to humanity and is not for sale, he goes quirky super-villain, challenging humanity, as it were, to outbid him.

His interest in the Rothko chapel, and his comment about deliberately wasting his talent also reminds one of Rothko's interest in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. Cronenberg omits an in-book retort from Eric, who after being reprimanded for wanting to even make the offer, calls out her relativist business ethics, noting that if he were a "Pigmy king or a cocaine warlord", his offer to purchase the chapel would be acceptable. Cronenberg also omits what I think was an important line by the art dealer in DeLilo's book: "You're beginning to think it's more interesting to doubt than to act. It takes more courage to doubt."

Eric's over-estimation of the import of Didi's epigram about wasted talent, while she, unable to even remember saying it, asks "What did I mean?", incredulous that he's attached such colossal significance to it, makes for a piteous moment. His answer is interrupted by a knock on the black plane of bullet-proof glass, which comes down like a curtain (making for a terrific bit of foreshadowing) and Torval apprises him of an in increase in the general threat level.

We next meet Eric's 22 year-old currency-modeling expert, Michael Chin (Philip Nozuka), who looks like he could be Sarah Silverman's brother. In repose like an impish chimp, his simian arms are outstretched like a crucified orangutan, his hooded sweatshirt twisted across his torso, reducing his waist, making him appear as if he is a genie emerging from a bottle. Another wunderkind, the kind Eric once was, he is a Keanu Reeves everydude-as-savant, gangling around the limo while following a tablet like Curious George following a butterfly, noting simply, almost sportingly, that they are now "staring at the void". In response to Eric telling him that his intellectual gifts are best applied to the interaction of capital and technology, after he tells Eric that he's thinking of getting out of the business, he has one of the best lines in the book and film: "High school was the last true challenge."

final art for cosmopolis review

The two muse and riff on the idea of creating a unit of currency called "The Rat", and it is surprising that they didn't know that there already is a rat in circulation (a useful prop they could play quarters with), namely the Chinese lunar coin series from -- of all years -- 1984.

At times it seems it isn't enough for Cronenberg to merely have transcribed dialogue -- the novel's flow being different than the film's, there are perhaps necessarily certain instances wherein Cronenberg might, in this process-aware age, give an elucidation of the economic models they are working on (and whether they make any sense at all), à la the hack scene in The Social Network -- otherwise there is a risk of taking their roles for granted, like we do in real-life.

We subsequently meet Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton) his theory-chief, a kind of eastern european nihilist who constantly disclaims any technical knowledge of the universe about which she is paid to hypothesize, whilst enigmatically dispensing globally consequential courses of action. During one hysterical scene, Eric and his other currency-modeling expert, Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire), pow-wow over market updates, as he has an in-limo prostate exam. Their discussion of declining fortunes becomes a kind of conversation-as-terror-sex amidst apocalyptic market signs, turning his limo, as they both climax, into a office holiday-party-on-wheels. The doctor informs him that he has an asymmetrical prostate, and this emerges as a kind of Rorschach for his mettle. One might metaphorically consider that his prostate defies Darwinian data that all lifeforms are symmetrical, since Eric lives in a purely Darwinian world.

He meets up several times -- all by chance -- with his wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), with whom he engages in DeLiloan deadpan over breakfast. They meet again later in a bookstore, which instantly reminds me of the Gotham Book Mart. Although Cronenberg says he wanted Cosmopolis to appear as if it was happening in any city, when, in his DVD commentary on the bookstore scene, he laments that 47th St. in New York City has changed, I know he is thinking of my beloved, and now gone-forever Gotham Book Mart, which was my best customer when I distributed literary CDs by Marcel Duchamp, William Burroughs, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Gertrude Stein, etc. When the owners of Gotham were looking for a place to move, I suggested the west side of Manhattan, near Paula Cooper's 192 Books, and Printed Matter, and I still believed they would have done okay there. That store was one of my favorite places in this, my hometown. Kudos to Cooper for curating Hans Haacke's "Helmsboro Country" Marlboro pack in her gallery, circa twenty-plus years ago; it was part of the recent -- and really fun -- "Regarding Warhol" show at the Met. For me, that work, along with Richard Prince's "Untitled (Cowboy 1989)" were the pieces which really did something interesting, yet in-line with Warhol's legacy. It was certainly great to see Nico's screen test, and a little bit of Empire.

Back to the movie, another omission from the book that might have worked in-film is the book's demolition-site lovemaking scene between Elise and Eric, which seems to me like a terrific reversal of the Ayn Rand stone quarry primal sex scene twixt Howard and Gail in The Fountainhead, insofar as it depicts individuals adrift, and on the decline.

Throughout he film, Eric wonders where limousines go at the end of the day, and on his way to finding out, he gets an existential comeuppance, like the self-satisfied lawyer on his motorcycle who gets smacked at a red light in Camus's The Fall -- though, instead of a smack, he gets a pie in the face from a political prankster named André Petriscu (scene-stealer Mathieu Amalric). He finds himself, after several incidents (which I leave for you to experience), being shot at on the street. He enters a building wherein resides, yes, the source of his death-threats. Thus begins the film's climax, which is stolen by Paul Giamatti's terrific portrayal of marginalized-man Benno Levin. Eric learns that his assassin-to-be is an ex-employee. They both make the case for why the others' choice of life is inauthentic, and like the two sole survivors in Life of Pi (a film which has been dually overrated and under-appreciated), they are stuck with each other and need each other, as a matter of life and death.

Eric, who has heretofore believed himself to be living in a post-history phase, (hence, perhaps his desire to make some) is told in no uncertain terms by Benno, a man disconnected from time, (he was fired because he was unable to keep up with the infinitesimally-timed models Eric created) that, "Yes, this is history." His rant is one for the ages -- he asks that timeless question posited by the disaffected, disenfranchised, and just generally dissed: "How did those people get to be who they are?" He goes through a litany of a few of his least favorite things, and in the process, expresses his pain, and why he's gone over the edge, decrying a world too-far-gone: "It's people talking in restaurants, signing bills, tearing off the customer copy and putting their credit card back in their wallet...this alone could do it...it's women's shoes; all the names they have for shoes..."

We see the two men, not tearing each other apart, but instead grappling, analyzing their stations in life, offering each other analysis. Eric confides in his killer-to-be about his asymmetrical prostate, and Benno non-chalantly notes that so is his, and that it is nothing to worry about. He explains to Eric that he once enjoyed his job: "I love the cross-harmonies between nature and data, you taught me this...you should have used this for [your estimation of] the Yuan; you make this analysis horribly and sadistically precise, but you forgot one thing."

"What?"

"The importance of the lopsided."

I leave the end of the film and book for you to discover.

Cosmopolis is available on DVD, and is screening tonight at The Museum of The Moving Image.

Subscribe to the Entertainment email.
Home to your favorite fan theories and the best movie recs.