Here’s an opening gambit. You probably won’t like this film. In fact, you shouldn’t like this film, as it goes out of its way to make itself unlikeable. Why, then, did I find myself enjoying it so much?
Here’s why you won’t like it.
The main character is a blank, an automaton who doesn’t engage your emotions or sympathy. It’s a wilfully obscure film with a glacial pace and dialogue that deliberately obfuscates, spinning in circles around itself and being delivered in stilted, glib epigrams that are weighted with apocalyptic portent but ultimately say nothing and add little to the plot (such as it is). And it has Robert Pattinson in it. Okay, that was a cheap shot – Twilight aside, he is a decent actor.
The plot is fairly slight, following Eric Packer, a young finance wizard who decides to ‘get a haircut’. The film consists of the entire journey across Manhattan in the back of his stretch limo to the barbers, with various little stops on the way and a procession of aides and flunkies dropping in to impart their nuggets of wisdom. All the while Packer’s Chief of Security is continually updating him about ‘credible threats’ to his life and society seems to be breaking down around the limo with increasingly violent protests happening, but never penetrating Packer’s insular bubble. Packer is only vaguely human, conducting his business like an alien trying to figure out human interaction, especially in his dealings with his new wife. I think it was a blatant choice on director David Cronenberg’s part to choose Robert Pattinson and play on his vampiric, inhuman persona.
The emotion and humanity in the film is really only to be found in the various cameos by the likes of Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti as they pass through Packer’s day, although many of them are as inscrutable as Packer himself. Packer gains no pleasure from anything and everything is an analysis to him. He treats his sexual encounters as no different to his daily rectal exam or discussions of financial theory, all of which takes place in the back of his limo.
The theme of this review is why did I like it? What was it about this impenetrable, stagey, slow drama that I enjoyed so much? Because I did enjoy it. I found it gripping to watch, even when the dialogue is almost abstract and impossible to follow there was a hypnotic quality about it. Like a metronome, the tick-tock procession of characters and situations set abstract notions spinning in my brain that I try but fail to fathom, although it doesn’t matter, because in a sense the film plays like a road movie and we start to wonder what each new character is going say or do. There is also an unresolved, tense atmosphere that permeates the entire film, becoming more and more apocalyptic and surreal. The interior of the limo becomes a place separate from reality, feeling almost like a spaceship or underwater craft moving slowly through the world, unaffected by it. There is a huge structural metaphor at play here, of the financial world and how it continues to move like a sleek shark no matter what forces assault it, but I think metaphors in film or literature shouldn’t be there to be understood, unless you’re a film student, so I don’t always like discussing them. Whether you see or don’t see the layers of metaphor is irrelevant. You should still be able to enjoy the film on any level, so if understanding the symbolism and metaphor and multi-layers of meaning is the only way to enjoy the film, in my opinion the film is a failure. Film is image-based and no matter the intention of the film-maker, those images should be able to create meaningful associations in the mind of the viewer. Those associations will differ from person to person, but each person should be able to get enough out of it to satisfy them.
That’s some explanation on what it was about the film that I enjoyed, but still doesn’t quite clarify why I, in particular, enjoyed it. Why does one person enjoy a film and not another watching the same film in the same circumstances? I know I’ve always had a peculiar patience for unconventional films; films that are thunderously slow; films with little or no plot to speak of. David Cronenberg’s films are often divisive and Cosmopolis falls firmly within the realms of Crash and Spider and Existenz, two of which were also novel adaptations – Cosmopolis being adapted from the Don De Lillo novel of the same name. I also enjoyed those particular films, each of which have their own layers of difficulty in engaging with the story and I wonder sometimes if Cronenberg does that on purpose, putting up obstacles and making a film difficult to like. Cosmopolis certainly does a grand job of that, defying the rules of making a protagonist even a little bit sympathetic, or making the building drama actually go somewhere. Maybe, in terms of enjoyment for me, it comes a lot down to atmosphere and Cosmopolis is dripping with it. An apocalyptic atmosphere where the real apocalypse isn’t the violent protests or people setting themselves on fire, but the apocalypse on the inside (of the limo in this case), in the tiniest of details, in Eric Packer’s self-seeking mission of understanding, or in the fractured mind of Paul Giamatti’s wronged employee. Where is Packer going anyway? What is he really after? Is it a depiction of his own personal collapse? Who knows? And that guessing game is something else that turns me onto a film like this. The performances are also excellent. The dialogue is highly unrealistic and consists of sequences of statements and questions with no direct responses or answers, and most of the time is impossible to follow, but when it’s being spoken with the intensity of Paul Giamatti, or the icy aloofness of Sarah Gaden it’s mesmerising.
Do I recommend you see it? Yes, and no, because I think I’ve explained why you’ll either like this or not like it. Either way it’s bound to create a strong opinion in one direction or the other.