Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Great Feats of Recitation: Cosmopolis (2012)

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (2012).

Fresh off filming the final Twilight film (2012), Robert Pattinson jumped straight into portraying yet another nearly affectless, pale leading man with stylish hair in Cosmopolis (2012), adapted by director David Cronenberg from the Don DeLillo novel. Rarely have I encountered a film with such single-minded focus: everything here, from production design to camera angles to score, is in service to the dialogue. As it should be.

As befits a postmodernist master like DeLillo, Cosmopolis at its core is about a man trying to escape the prison house of language, symbolized by the cocoon of security required by the wealth of 28-year-old billionaire financier Eric Packer (Pattinson). Just as the prison house of language has no warden, Eric’s immediate security detail receives and considers suggestions from a faraway entity called the Complex. (Lacanian psychoanalysis is another postmodern ingredient.)

In a paper-thin excuse for a plot, Eric is crossing New York City in his fully armored stretch limousine-cum-mobile office-cum-medical examination room on the same day that the U.S. President visits; a lengthy funeral procession is held for a famous rapper (played by Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan) to whom Eric also enjoys listening (“His music is in one of my elevators”); and the streets erupt in anarchic protest against the 1% (an LED sign reads, “A specter is haunting the world / The specter of capitalism”). Why does he brave the city on this day? He wants a haircut. Only he and his family barber (George Touliatos) seem to think he needs one (hair styled by Paul Elliot).

Most of the film is a one-room show. Since he is a powerful man, people come to him for meetings, and that means joining him in his slowly progressing yet eerily smooth-gliding limo, as if it were a sedate theme park ride and all these people were the attractions. He learns from these meetings that his fortune is in the process of being wiped out due to a bad currency bet, that capitalism has colonized the future and time itself – this meeting is with his Chief of Theory (Samantha Morton) – and that his prostate is asymmetrical.

But really, what’s said is less important than the saying itself. The language is the thing: listen as it flows and eddies, circles back around, and drops underground, just to emerge later as velocitous as before. The soundproofed limo creates a background silence that focuses our ears, and the thrumming electronic score (by Howard Shore and Canadian band Metric) only kicks in to keep things moving when the dialogue is actual plot exposition.

The visuals also focus our ears. I have never been as rapt at a lecture as I was at this film, which is essentially a series of one-on-one panel discussions. The camera is always in closeup, never below eye level, and often at an odd angle best described as “security footage,” thereby emphasizing the linguistic panopticon (panauron?). The lighting by Peter Suschitzky is blatantly artificial, with a source somewhere in front to light the face, except in the one nude scene where shadow offers a modicum of modesty. That lighting makes the production design (by Arv Greywal) seem artificial, too, and the outside world as seen through the limo’s windows is obviously green-screened – so it’s a shock when Eric sees someone, exits the limo, and walks up to talk to them, all in the same shot.

Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon in Cosmopolis (2012).

The acting is also in service to language. Pattinson in particular, who’s in every scene, spews forth reams and reams of dialogue in intentional monotone with muted body language, sometimes punctuating his side of the conversation with “We know this” and the non sequitur “My prostate is asymmetrical.” It’s the assured calm of someone who does know, or at least wants people to think he does. It also turns this one-percenter into an alien among us. His habitual use of “we” to refer to himself, his interlocutor, or both without clarification serves to make him even less human.

He’s not the only alien. Eric recently married Elise (Sarah Gadon), a billionaire poet with a wispy voice, icy demeanor, and perfect straight blonde hair. (I would actually love to read her work.) Throughout his slow crawl across town, he just happens to see her on the street at mealtimes, and he gets out to eat with her. Gadon delivers a performance in the exact same alien style as Pattinson’s, and Elise is one of the few people in the film who can ruffle Eric, in this case by repeatedly denying him sex, and then divorcing him once it’s clear he’s broke. It’s in these scenes that we see the last sliver of humanity left in him – his boyish sense of entitlement.

Eric longs to escape his wealth-enforced cocoon of safety and placidity; “I hate being rational,” he says, connecting the themes of safety and language as confinement. He tries to buy the Rothko Chapel (yes, the whole thing), that mecca of modernist painting that takes one’s words away, seeking to use his wealth as a weapon to escape language. He tries sex with an art dealer (Juliette Binoche) in his limo, then with his newest bodyguard (Patricia McKenzie) in a hotel. It doesn’t work. Language always drags him back from the brink of escape, as when he feels an electric charge between him and his Chief of Finance (Emily Hampshire) as they stare into each other’s eyes, and then it’s canceled out when he names the feeling as sexual tension. Not even seeing a protester self-immolate can move him beyond an aspiration to feel something, anything, even pain; and when he gets pied in the face it sets off Torval, his tough German head of security (Kevin Durand, delivering ironic lines seriously), more than it does him. He shoots Torval dead on a whim – nothing. He’s only slightly disturbed that, by the end of the day, he’s a ruined man.

In desperation to escape the static nexus of safety, wealth, and language, when he’s shot at after leaving the protester-defaced limo at the garage, he traces the shot’s trajectory to the second floor of a rundown hovel, where he meets the barely sane Benno (Paul Giamatti). He, and we, have seen him before, through the limo window passing by some ATMs early in the day. Having left his limo, Eric now has a more direct engagement with the outside world: another conversation. But this is more like Lacanian therapy (psychoanalysis again), as Benno rants and rambles about suffering under the heel of capitalism, and Eric responds with brief remarks that cut to the core of Benno’s psyche. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody faults the film for taking a turn toward the moralistic so late in the game, but the film doesn’t take sides. It’s yet another instance of language taking over, subverting what should be a psychologically thrilling verbal sparring match into a stream of pseudo-psychological motivations and pseudo-serious retorts, just words piled onto words. Eric still feels trapped, which is why he takes out his own gun and shoots himself in the hand – aiming not at his palm, contemplatively, but at the back of his hand, with purpose, as if it were someone else’s. And still the conversation continues.

The film ends with Benno pointing his gun at the back of Eric’s head, but whether he pulls the trigger or not, language is the sole survivor.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog reviewfilmreview.wordpress.com, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.    

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