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Christopher Fennell

CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg
15 June 2012 (UK)




David Cronenberg is one of the most consistent and unflinching surgeons (or geneticists) of the mutating cinematic body. His early body-horror films relentlessly articulate a politics, a technology, even a poetics of the flesh. They focus obsessively and chaotically on the body. In his recent films, however, this certainty of fleshy mutilation and torture has given way to psychological transformations which challenge both twentieth-century formulations of identity and the modern creation of the unified self. His new film, Cosmopolis – which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012 – is about the body dissenting from the rational approbation of selfhood and transforming into a detached, self-actualizing entity.

Based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, the film is a lithe, oleaginous glide over prophetic millennial fears of capitalist excess. Soul-dead plutocrat Eric Packer (a liquid, robotic Robert Pattinson) is being ferried in his limo across a metaphysical Manhattan haunted by the glow of cyber-capitalism. In this coffin built for a King, he is hermetically sealed off from the outside world, impervious to exterior sounds and furnished with everything he needs on the inside: hyperreal coding screens, food, alcohol, a toilet, and plentiful supplies of sex. In a space capsule filled with mirrors, windows, and reflexive surfaces – multiple planes of consciousness that act as portals to reality – Parker reflects on his own psyche, and later on his body, testing the limits of his claustrophobic travel anxiety.

Cronenberg, who has not penned a screenplay of his own since eXistenZ (1999), translates the menacingly stilted dialogue almost verbatim from the DeLillo novel. Pattinson has the anodyne expression and android features ideally suited to deliver this psychopathic drone. If the ‘eyes are the window to the soul’, as Max Renn says in Videodrome (1983), then there is nothing to be found behind these ones. Pattinson, however, is merely a stylistic element, without the cold complexity of Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988), engaging only in vapid, mannerist exchanges that become increasingly somnolent. He has coquettish sex-cum-business meetings with elegant art trader Juliette Binoche; a daily rectal exam administered by his in-limo doctor; philosophical conversations with his ‘chief of theory’, Samantha Morton; and breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates with Sarah Godon, his wife, whom he sees more in boredom than obligation.

As his mental state disintegrates, the sleek, rectilinear surfaces of the limo become strewn with graffiti from the anti-capitalist protestors outside; leaving an image of uncontrollable disorder that represents the obsolescence and irrecuperability of his former self. As a post-capitalist parable recounting the collapse of the era of excess, Cosmopolis has a discernibly psychotic, affective pulse. But as a horror-drama about chaos and death, the seat-belt remains unfastened throughout, offering a withdrawn, cocooned netherworld that fails to align itself with contemporary fears.

Christopher Fennell is reading for an MSt in Film Aesthetics at St Anne’s College, Oxford.