“I wanted you to save me.” — Paul Giamatti in Cosmopolis
It’ll probably take the rest of the world a few years to realize this but David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is not only a good film but occasionally, it’s even a great film. What it is not is an easy film. Instead, this film is a throwback to the such Cronenberg films as Videodrome and eXistenZ, films that served to not only challenge the audience’s expectations but to occasionally attack them as well.
Plotwise, Cosmopolis is a day in the life of a 28 year-old billionaire named Eric Packer (played by Robert Pattinson, who gives an excellent performance that hints at the neurosis that boils underneath surface ennui). Packer wants to get a haircut so he spends nearly the entire day sitting in the back of his stretch limo, being driven through an increasingly violent and disturbing New York. Rarely leaving the safety of his limo, Packer has several chance meetings with his wife, who refuses to have sex with him, and picks up several other women who are willing to have sex with him. He also finds the time to have a prostate exam and discuss (and discuss) the meaning of life with several of his cronies, all of whom seem to pop up in the back of his limousine without warning and who also seem to vanish once Packer tires of listening to them. Along the way, Packer finds both himself and his limousine being targeted for destruction but he never changes his plans or his direction. After all, he needs a haircut…
Many reviewers are treating Cosmopolis, with its portrayal of a man who has too much money and not enough humanity, as if it’s some sort of Occupy manifesto and, indeed, there are several scenes where Cosmpolis does seem to serve as a mouthpiece for the anti-capitalist Occupy ideology. There are also several scenes where Cosmopolis plays as a very deliberate modern-day version of Jean-Luc Godard’s Marxist-themed, pro-revolution Weekend. However, to simply call Cosmopolis a pro-Occupy film is to offer up an interpretation that’s a bit too simplistic. After all, when the Cosmopolis version of the Occupy protestors do make an appearance, they’re either rioting in the streets (and getting nothing more than a bemused smirk from Packer) or else they’re being represented in the form of a shambling and somewhat pathetically bitter character played by Paul Giamatti. When Giamatti accuses Packer of hurting other people with his lifestyle, Packer confidently replies, “Don’t pretend that you care about other people,” and it’s rather obvious that, in the troubled world of Cosmopolis, both the excesses of the 1% and the Occupy movement spring from the same poisoned well of narcissism and anger. In Cosmopolis, neither of the competing ideologies are presented as being a solutions but instead, both are seen as signs that the world is beyond saving.
Ultimately, Cosmopolis is a return to themes that should be familiar to anyone who is familiar with Cronenberg’s work. Like many Cronenberg protaganists, Eric Packer is a neurotic man who has attempted to make himself invulnerable to a messy and imperfect world and, in the process, he has surrendered his humanity. While the world outside collapses, Packer is sealed off in his stretch limo. Over the course of the day, it becomes increasingly obvious that he stays in the limo because that limousine is an environment that he can control. It also becomes apparent that the sterility of his perfect limo has left his incapable of relating to or even understanding the world outside. It’s only as the film progresses and Packer continually finds himself forced to exit the limousine that his true nature starts to come to the surface. It’s only when, at the end of the film, Packer finds himself permanently separated from his limousine that the film can reach its apocalyptic ending.
Ever since it appeared at Cannes, Cosmopolis has been getting a lot of mixed reviews and it’ll probably never be the type of film that is embraced by the masses. It’s too cold and clinical to be beloved by many filmgoers.
Well, that’s their loss.
In a year that’s been dominated by bland and safe movies, Cosmopolis is a film that dares to challenge the audience. It’s a film that dares to say that all is not right with the world and that there might not be any easy or crowd-pleasing solutions.
Love it or hate it, we need (and deserve) films like Cosmopolis.