(c) Alfama Films
Anybody who remembers what Canadian director David Cronenberg got up to in the 1970s and 1980s will find it ironic that, nowadays, he’s regarded as a rather sober and cerebral filmmaker. Indeed, he has a reputation for being restrained – at least, restrained in a technical sense for, unlike many younger directors, he doesn’t go in for frantic running around with hand-held cameras and frenzied chop-chop-chop editing. Rather, he has an old-fashioned but admirable tendency to park his camera in one place, point it in the direction of his actors and actresses and let them get on with things. Also, he’s viewed these days as a director whom it’s okay for Serious Movie Critics to like.
Wow, how times change.
Once upon a time, Cronenberg made films like 1977’s Rabid (accident survivor Marilyn Chambers grows on her body a slimy phallic stinger, which infects half the population of Montreal and transforms them into slavering blood-crazed zombies); 1979’s The Brood (mad scientist Oliver Reed induces a psychotic Samantha Eggar to ‘externalise’ her rage by growing an outside womb, which in turn produces a horde of dwarf-child monsters with a fondness for bludgeoning their victims to death); Scanners (misguided scientist Patrick McGoohan sires a race of super-humans with telepathic and telekinetic powers whose party-piece is to make people’s heads explode); 1983’s Videodrome (TV station president James Woods becomes obsessed with a mysterious snuff / torture-porn pirate channel and hallucinates about having a gash down his abdomen into which he can insert video cassettes); and of course 1986’s The Fly (loopy but nice scientist Jeff Goldblum encounters a spot of bother with his matter-teleportation device and ends up metamorphosing into an acid-slobbering insectoid mutant whose human bits drop off one by one).
Cronenberg’s choice of subject matter didn’t endear him to mainstream film critics at the time. He especially didn’t win himself many fans among those folk reviewing films in the British media in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a priggish bunch who didn’t understand why every new film made couldn’t be as uplifting and wholesome as Chariots of Fire. I remember hearing on the BBC’s Film 79 programme a vitriolic review of The Brood by Barry Norman (back then the most famous film critic in Britain), who described Cronenberg as “the guru of the mentally insane”. And even as late as 1996, the Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey and the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker were campaigning for a UK ban on the showing of Crash, Cronenberg’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name. “A movie beyond the bounds of depravity,” thundered the bilious Walker.
Unpleasantness still occasionally rears its head in Cronenberg’s movies – most notably in 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises, although what gives the violent sequences in those films such explosive impact is the fact that, elsewhere, Cronenberg orchestrates proceedings in a relatively quiet and un-sensational manner, focusing on character rather than on action. Generally, though, nobody who’s been following his career over the past four decades can disagree with the claim that Cronenberg the Elder is a less excitable beast than Cronenberg the Younger.
Indeed, it must be galling for long-term horror buffs with fond memories of the gruesome Cronenberg of yore, who believe their man has now sold out and become mainstream, safe and respectable. (Perhaps in 2011 they got excited when they heard that he was making a Freudian movie called A Dangerous Method. “At last!” they might’ve exclaimed. “He’s gone back to making films about phallic sex parasites that slither out of vaginal orifices in people’s armpits!” But no, Cronenberg’s Freudian film was actually a period drama set in central Europe before World War I and featured Sigmund Freud as a character.)
Age mellows most people, of course, but it’s worth noting that in the old days Cronenberg was a true auteur. Like a punk Orson Welles, he dreamt up the original ideas for his films, then scripted them and directed them. However, in the last 20 years, nearly all of his films have originated in places other than his own imagination. They’ve been adapted from novels (Ballard’s Crash, William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch filmed in 1991, and Patrick McGrath’s Spider filmed in 2002), adapted from plays (David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly filmed in 1993, and Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, which was filmed as A Dangerous Method), adapted from graphic novels (John Wagner and Vincent Locke’s A History of Violence), and based on other people’s screenplays (Eastern Promises was written by Stephen Knight). Maybe this distance from the source material has exerted a calming influence over the former guru of the mentally insane.
Only with 1999’s eXistenZ, a neglected science fiction thriller set in a future where gamers use synthetic umbilical cords and surgically-created sockets to attach the consoles to their own bodies and play the games whilst wandering across various planes of hallucinogenic virtual reality, did Cronenberg write a script from an original idea. And actually, eXistenZ deserved more acclaim than it got because, in its low-budget way, it was very much a prototype for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Inception.
Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s latest, is again an adaptation of a novel, one authored by Don DeLillo, and again it won’t please those who hanker after the gory sci-fi horrors he made in his youth. Tapping into a fashionable post-economic-meltdown / end-of-capitalism zeitgeist, it deals with events in one day in the life of a multi-billionaire mogul called Eric Packard, who is played by Robert Pattinson, best known for being Edward the vampire in the Twilight movies. Packard is journeying across New York in a stretch limo that’s so massive it doubles as a hi-tech office. Although he and his business subordinates talk and seemingly think in a machine-like language of corporate data – figures, trends, currencies, percentages, exchange rates – he is motivated today by an unusually human desire to visit and get a haircut at the old-fashioned barber shop that he went to as a kid, on the city’s far side. However, the traffic in the streets is paralysed for various reasons – the US president is making a visit, a massive funeral is taking place and some Occupy-style protestors have kick-started an anti-corporate, anti-globalisation, anti-everything riot. Thus, the road to Packard’s barber is strewn with obstacles that even his behemoth of a limousine will have trouble negotiating.
Meanwhile, there are suggestions that the writing is on the wall for Packard and his hugely lucrative company. His business is suddenly haemorrhaging money at a terrifying rate, which has something to do with fluctuations in the value of the Chinese yuan. And his security team have heard rumours that somebody, somewhere, is out to assassinate him.
Unlike James Joyce’s Ulysses, whose story also took place within a single day and whose setting was also the streets of a single, well-known city – but which gave its characters a heroic aura and invested its incidents with a mythic quality, thanks to its manifold references to The Odyssey – Packard’s quest in Cosmopolis feels low-key and claustrophobic. Mainly this is because much of the film’s action takes place within that impressive but restrictive limousine. During the day-long ride, it picks up a succession of employees and associates and, as each conducts his or her business with Packard, the film becomes a series of acting set-pieces staged within a very big car.
The scenes involving the female cast-members work well. The episode with Emily Hampshire, who plays Packard’s chief of finance, gives the film some welcome humour. (She visits the car at the same time as Packard’s doctor, and the billionaire insists on combining her briefing with his daily medical inspection. Subsequently, he tries, and fails, to maintain a business-like demeanour with her whilst receiving a vigorous rectal examination.) Meanwhile, a scene involving another advisor, played by Samantha Morton, where the two of them talk business inside the limo whilst seemingly oblivious to an anarchist riot raging on all sides of it, with one protestor even self-immolating, is perhaps the closest the film gets to old-school Cronenberg – in terms of bleak, apocalyptic atmosphere, if not visceral graphicness. Juliette Binoche also turns up in the vehicle as Packard’s art advisor and, well, it’s just nice to see Juliette Binoche in anything.
Unfortunately, dramatically, the film is hit-and-miss. A scene in which Packard discovers the identity of the person in the casket in the funeral cortege – a scene designed to reveal his emotional side – is strangely uninvolving. Meanwhile, two key encounters that he has towards the end of the film don’t work either, largely because Cronenberg allows both scenes to go on too long. Indeed, the scenes seem to stretch longer than Packard’s favoured mode of transport. He may increasingly be an actors’ director these days, but Cronenberg really needed to show some ruthlessness with his cast here. In the editing room, at least, he could have trimmed a few minutes off their performances to the film’s benefit.
One other criticism – Cosmopolis has a feeling of being set in a slightly different universe from our own one, a slightly more futuristic and cyberpunk universe, but that doesn’t give it carte blanche to make up its own laws of probability and coincidence. On three different occasions during the marathon car journey across New York, Packard manages to bump into his recently-wed spouse (Sarah Gadon, who played Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method). These three chance meetings bend credibility to snapping point. Also, it seems ridiculous that the two locations necessary for tying up the plot at the film’s conclusion should turn out to be on the same street, facing one another.
Of Robert Pattinson’s performance, the best that can be said is that he is adequate for the requirements of the role. That doesn’t mean, however, that he has to show much acting prowess. Rather, he merely has to inhabit a blank and self-absorbed character whose default setting seems to be indifference – for a man suddenly being stalked by a potential killer and suddenly hurtling from obscene wealth to bankruptcy, Packard might be expected to display a little more anguish at the turn of events. Also, it isn’t a role that requires much interaction with one’s fellow actors. Clearly lacking in social skills, Packard spouts a steady stream of banalities / profundities without being much aware if his listeners are interested or not.
Packard, in fact, hardly seems to be of this world. He skulks inside his limo like a vampire holed up during the hours of daylight inside its crypt. Which, given his acting CV, may well be why Pattinson got the gig.
The best thing that can be said about Cosmopolis, then, is that it’s an interesting failure – and at least when Cronenberg fails, he usually does manage to remain interesting. However, with this one, I find myself in agreement with those traditional horror-movie fans who wish the great man would go back to his old ways. Yes, Cosmopolis would’ve been more fun if Cronenberg had thrown a few sex parasites, a few exploding heads and some acidic masticating fluid into the mix.