TALKING HEADS: COSMOPOLIS
Finding in the same sentence the names “Robert Pattinson” and “David Cronenberg” is something I absolutely did not see coming. When I learned that the Twilight star was starring as the lead in the Canadian director’s new production, I found it more bizarre than all of Cronenberg oeuvres combined. I thought Pattinson did not deserve to be working with such a mythical filmmaker. What has he done in his relatively short career that has led him to this role ? Nothing. It felt as strange as if a Days of our Lives actor suddenly got a big part in a Coppola movie. Looking back at my initial reaction, I feel a bit ashamed as I clearly exhibited the elitist bias I condemned in my Battleship critic. In my defence, I quickly decided to give him a chance after seeing the trailer of COSMOPOLIS which made me hope that the Cronenberg we love had returned after his lethargic A Dangerous Method (2011). Also, remembering that Cronenberg gave top billing to a porn star (Marilyn Chambers) in Rabid (1978), it appeared to me as not so random after all that he had picked Pattinson. Perhaps he had not been given a real opportunity yet to prove his talent. Taking my seat at the theatre, I sincerely hoped for him that he did not blow it. Cosmopolis is the adaptation a 2003 novel penned by Don DeLillo which tells the urban journey of twenty-eight years old filthy rich businessman Erick Parker who decided to cross New York City in his stretched limo to get an haircut the day the President of the United States is in town. Although DeLillo does not belong to the literary brat pack emblematically represented by Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney because of his date of birth (1938), it seems that his productions have been the object of parallels with the works of his younger colleagues. I am not a literary critic but I guess I can understand why Cosmopolis might have such an appeal to those like me who have read Less Than Zero, American Psycho and Bright Lights Big City. All those novels take place in the mean street of an immense city in which a young antihero corrupts and loses himself. The madness of urbanity, the illusion of drugs and the use of sexuality and violence to try to keep up with the absurdity of life are themes that are treated by these writers. They are also present in Cronenberg’s universe, flesh and blood being his trademarks obsessions. Both directed and written by David Cronenberg himself, Cosmopolis is the third book he has made a movie out: he started in 1983 with Stephen King’s The Dead Zone starring Christopher Walken and then reinterred the experience with J.G. Ballard’s Crash with James Spaderin 1996 (he had written the second but not the first). Telling a story was the only point of The Dead Zone while the goal of Crash was not to entertain but to make the viewer experience the protagonists’ extreme feelings of pleasure and pain. Crash is a cathartic oeuvre designed to stimulate the body, the very guts of its spectators while A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis aim to stimulate their intellect. I do not mean of course that one has to choose between doing one or the other, but the last two films of Cronenberg appear to me as more brainy, more in touch with the world of thought and ideas than of the flesh. Of course sex is an important matter in them but it is less visceral and more restrained in its depiction than before. What is really at stake in both of these films is the logos. In an interview that can be found in the Cosmopolis press kit, Cronenberg explains that he had constructed his screenplay around the dialogues he had extracted from the novel. In doing so, I think that he has clearly intended to valorise the verbal expression instead of the physical one. Already in A Dangerous Method, it was in the scholar confrontations between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) that I found a source of excitement rather than in the spanking scenes between Jung and Spielrein (Keira Knightley). However, I still maintain that he did not want to show so little arousing sex scenes and that the lack of chemistry between Fassbender and Knightley is at fault there; but now that I have thought it over, I tend to think that he did plan on getting us hot with and for the intellectual exchanges. Watching Cosmopolis, I realized that Cronenberg was exploring further the galvanizing and erotic power of speech. The debates happening between Erick Parker (Robert Pattinson) and the various characters he comes in contact with are supposed to be able to get us so hook on them because of their highly intellectual contents. Knowledge is an aphrodisiac; we are attracted to people who have it. Sometimes, talking is even more intense than the sexual act itself. It even replaces it in Cosmopolis. During the course of the movie, Erick Parker has sex with two women on screen, and probably with one off screen. What is interesting is that in each of these encounters, sex itself does not suffice. It is immediately followed by a conversation; it occurs even once during the act. Erick is craving for more than sex; he is constantly craving for stimulating talks and for information. The three women that he gets with in the film provide him with knowledge in three different and distinct domains. The first, Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche), is an art dealer and informs him that the church he wants to buy is definitely not for sell. The second – and hypothetic lover as we do not actually get to see them going at it – is Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire), his employee. She lets him know that the Yuan of which he has bet the downfall is rising. The third and last, Kendra Hays (Patricia McKenzie), tells him about how she and her direct boss insure his security. Noteworthy, their conversation is during the act. In these cases, sex is not replaced but completed by the logos. Additional and stronger points to my argument come in the shapes of two more characters: Erick’s head of theories department, Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton who had previously played the brainy type in Spielberg’s Minority Report), and his wife Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon, Miss Jung in A Dangerous Method). Considering the none-existing sexual relationship between Erick and Elise, it is not difficult to imagine that their multiple rendezvous in a cab, a bookshop and three restaurants can be labelled as foreplay; at least in Erick’s mind. A young married couple, they still have not consumed their union which is understandably bothering Erick. He tries diverse tones of voice and invitations to get Elise to join him in a hotel without success. Talking dirty to Elise is the only thing as close as sex he will get to do to her. While the three intercourses he had in his limo seem meaningless to him, this absence of a meaningful relation with his wife is frustrating. It is even more because of his incapacity to communicate with Elise who can be described as laconic. Her none desire for Erick translates in her disinterest in engaging with him in any kind of sweet talking. The only time we see her switch to a more concerned and warm tone is when she jumps at the opportunity to break up with Erick because he is broke. The sexual harmony, fusion of mind and body that would suit Erick, he could have probably found in Vija but interestingly enough, she is the only woman he does not get to know biblically. The age difference is not a problem for him as he seems to have dated the forty-one years old Didi, neither is the employee/employer dynamic. It appears that the intellectual connection he has with Vija brings him the satisfaction and comfort he craves and that he could not get from any of the four women previously mentioned. More than just another female character, Vija is given the dimension of an oracle. The scene she shares with Erick is the one during which his limo is being attacked by anti-capitalist protestors. Not fazed by the violence outside, she remains calm, serene. As if she was having a vision, she delivers the most important monologue of Cosmopolis (to which contents I will get back later in my exposé for the sake of my argumentation). Erick notably barely speaks and only intervenes to ask her questions or agree with her. The dynamic of power is changed: she is his equal, even his guru and mentor when he was the dominant one in his interactions with his conquests. Sex is positively replaced by the speech here. Ultimately, it acted as a substitute to violence as well. In the final scene, Erick does know immediately shoot his stalker nicknamed Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti). Death will inevitably arrive, they both know it, but before, they go and try to understand each other existences. Here again, talk is a foreplay, a more sinister one considering the fatal issue it will lead to but it is necessary. Both of them have lived in a world of thoughts and data they can’t just escape so easily. They need to process what is happening to them, to discuss it, to analyze it. In a way, they both will die because they know too much. Knowledge is Eros, but it is also Thanathos in Cosmopolis. The ending is foreshadowed by Vija’s speech in the limo in which she prophesizes that humanity will have to disappear in order to restore the cosmic order. Our world, saturated with a continual flux of information and that have even disturbed time itself, is in the need of a revolution to survive, to rise again. It is in substance what Benno Levin reproaches to Erick and why he kills him. He sees him as a disturbance of the natural course of life and time because of his power and his genius. By murdering him, he gives a chance to himself and the rest of the world to regain its sanity. Now, this is my lecture of Cosmopolis but if I stick to my general interpretation of the film, I admit not being certain to having grasp completely or even correctly Vija’s monologue about money, time and everything else. A second viewing would perhaps allow me to get more insights but I do not want to put myself through it again. I wrote in my critic of A Dangerous Method that the dialogues about psychoanalyse were not an obstacle to enjoying the movie as it is a subject we hear about a lot in the occidental world. Furthermore, the immense acting talent of both Mortensen and Fassbender made it so that even if one was not feeling concerned by their debates, he could still let himself be taken by their performances. The problem in Cosmopolis is that not only the intellectual contents are very difficult to comprehend but that if we are a bit lost; we do not have a charismatically powerful lead to keep us at least intrigued. I struggled to stay on board and judging by the whispers of relief I heard from a lot of people in the audience, I was not the only one. During the first minutes of the film, I thought that Robert Pattinson could pull it off. He seemed cold, detached and mysterious enough but unfortunately, his charm had a quick expiration date. I will not bash his performance though as he definitely tried and gave his best so kudos to him for that. This however does not change the fact that he clearly did not have shoulders large enough to carry this role, let alone the movie. He lacked of a bit of maturity and – dare I say it – perversity. He was not dangerously attractive neither madly eloquent. I was not drinking his words, suspended on his lips like I was with Mortensen and Fassbender. Given the essential role of speech in the film, it was problematic. I know that in the book Erick Parker is twenty-years old too and that it would have be maybe awkward if Colin Farrell who had been originally casted would have played him, but I believe Cronenberg should have picked a more hard-looking actor. I do not mean that Stallone should have been Parker but someone more intense, physically and acting-wise would have been better suited for the part. Robert Pattinson is not to be entirely blamed for the disappointment that is Cosmopolis. Cronenberg’s directing should have been infused with more energy. Sure, I get that he wanted to show the outside jungle of New York through the eyes of an Erick hidden his stretched limo, in his own intellectual disconnected from reality world, but bored by the glacial, unwelcoming atmosphere that reigned in it, I only wanted to get out of it. Instead of being fascinated by such an inaccessible and peculiar place, I felt uninterested. I believe the movie should also not have been this long, as being more condensed would have perhaps allowed him to be more efficient. The sad thing about Cosmopolis is that its trailer was better and far more exciting than the whole thing.
___________________________________________________________________ Credits: Original poster of Cosmopolis by Damien Wake.
___________________________________________________________________ Credits: Original poster of Cosmopolis by Damien Wake.