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Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

June 21, 2012

Originally written for Reel Time, now at Sound on Sight

Though dissimilar in regards to thematic or narrative content, Cosmopolis bears a noticeable similarity to David Cronenberg’s last film, A Dangerous Method, in that both are heavily packed with lengthy, slow-moving conversation sequences that are predominantly free of sound outside of the spoken words. Both also possess an abrupt style of editing regarding scene transition that tends to reduce any sense of a graceful flow to the film’s progression. In A Dangerous Method, that editing caused unflattering comparisons to the source material’s stage roots; in Cosmopolis, the stilted feeling aids in demonstrating how largely unsuccessful the attempt to adapt Don DeLillo’s writing to screen is.

Crash and Naked Lunch are just two examples of how Cronenberg is no stranger to adapting eccentric literary material to the screen. In the past, he has been able to translate the spirit of a specific novel or author through inventive, engaging visual storytelling, and effective casting and editing, rather than transcribing the original text in an extremely faithful fashion. With Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s hyper-stylised prose style and the novel’s heavy conversations are almost all transplanted in their entirety. The screenplay penned by the director himself, this is a Cronenberg adaptation that does not rely on overtly cinematic tools, and the results are all too fleetingly successful. The content of that dialogue doesn’t prove especially cinematic either: abstract conversations about capitalism, stock market numbers, art purchase viability, currency fluctuations, and the notions of post-modern knowledge fuel virtually all of the film, taking place between the film’s protagonist and fleeting visitors to his elaborate, hi-tech limo.

Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a young billionaire financier who spends the film slowly journeying through Manhattan during a day of civil unrest, a presidential visit and a celebrity funeral that all hold up the roads. An assortment of familiar faces play his various visiting employees, acquaintances or sources of conflict, and many struggle with DeLillo’s specific brand of speech. The likes of Samantha Morton and Juliette Binoche come across as monotone reciters of the novel, and they certainly aren’t helped by the terrible rhythm of the film’s editing, where conversations don’t tend to actually intersect. The exchanges have no pacing to them, and the majority of them feel like people talking at rather than to each other, and most of the usually talented actors are unable to inject believability into the constant idea-spouting. One of the few able to do the latter is Pattinson himself who is on quite magnetic form here, though more so when his conversation partner is also able to keep up; Sarah Gadon, as his elusive wife, is a genuine highlight who actually adds a delectable, enticing spark to her delivery. Paul Giamatti, appearing in the final act and getting the lengthiest material to recite aside from Pattinson, almost single-handedly rejuvenates the film from its frequently tiresome mode.

Cronenberg has always been a director fond of a clinical style, but Cosmopolis is predominantly drab and suffocating rather than an enticing prospect for dissection. The one consistently recognisable Cronenberg-ian attribute of the film is the theme of penetration, be it bullet inflicted or via prostate exam with strange sexual tension, and the film is genuinely engaging during third act focus on increasingly anarchic personal descent rather than on economic and ideological concerns. That final stretch of the film is actually penetrative and relatively potent; much of the rest is just inert posturing.

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