“Artists,” according to Ezra Pound, “are the antennae of the race.”
In the case of David Cronenberg, one of Canada’s great directors, most of the time. In the case of Don DeLillo, one of America’s best novelists, most of the time.
Cronenberg has drawn from visionary writers before. He made his movie Crash from the novel of the same name by J. G. Ballard. He made Naked Lunch with the inspiration of the William Burroughs novel, although it’s less an adaptation than a re-projection, more on the artist making Naked Lunch than a faithful transformation of the book into a movie.
Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, and maybe this is its principal strength and weakness, is a faithful translation of Don DeLillo’s novel.
With Toronto as a stand-in for New York, the film opens with a scene of Union Station and from time to time gives viewers recognizable Toronto landmarks such as the Cannon Theatre and a used bookstore on Bloor West. In some respects, Cronenberg might have chosen any city for his setting because most of the film is shot inside a limo crawling through a traffic jam like a motorized centipede.
On his way to get a cross-town haircut, billionaire Eric Packer, played by Twilight star Robert Pattinson, drinks, pees, speculates on the Yen, reads, checks numbers on his computer, fears a potential assassin, has sex, conducts business and even has a prostate exam in his limo. The limo is Packer’s (Pattinson’s) office, his bedroom, his toilet, his place for interacting, speculating, theorizing, analyzing.
Pattinson is in almost every scene. His face is a mask, emotionally inscrutable and impenetrable. He’s married but his wife can’t have sex with him because it interferes with her work. He delivers DeLillo’s lines without emotion or inflection. His wife, on the other hand, sometimes gets emotional. She hasn’t learned how to be indifferent. His character is so wealthy that he wants to own the entire Rothko Chapel at Houston rather than a single Rothko; he has two private elevators in his forty-eight room apartment, one playing his favourite Sufi rap star and the other the music of Satie.
Packer’s financial advisor presciently intones, “Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself.” Sometimes the movie sounds like a graduate class on cyber-capitalism. “It’s all random phenomena…Hysteria at high speeds…People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over.”
Even the protesters they encounter en route “don’t exist outside the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside.” The present and the past are swallowed by the future. “People will not die…People will be absorbed in streams of information… Why die when you can live on disk?”
When DeLillo’s novel came out in 2003 it seemed, in retrospect, to predicate the financial meltdown of 2008. Cronenberg’s film seems to be an after-the-fact visualization of what went wrong—and is still going wrong.