From the moment David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis begins, when young tycoon Eric Packer (played by Robert Pattinson) tells his head of security that he wants a haircut and slides into his state-of-the-art car despite warnings of monumental traffic snarls and probable attempts on his life, we know, skeletally speaking, what we’re going to see. This will be a story of descent, in which the narrator props up a protagonist who has everything only to chip at the Great Man’s pedestal, bit by agonizing bit, until he stumbles down to earth with the rest of us (better still if he’s at our feet, begging for help). Cosmopolis follows this trajectory to something of a tee, but Cronenberg is after something unique; this is not a film that lets us indulge in the usual, rather pointless schadenfreude. His subject is the speed of the 21st century—the speed of cyber-capital, of the movement from analog to digital, the infernal future that’s already here and that’s left so many behind. He does not dramatize this speed by trying to approximate it (see The Matrix again if that’s your thing). No, Cronenberg slows us way the hell down—asks us to stay put and encircles us in that hoary old fortress called language.
See, this is a talky movie. Eric Packer has meetings in his limousine to discuss his declining fortune (he’s bet poorly against the yuan). He meets with Juliette Binoche to discuss his art collection (he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel). He meets with his doctor to discuss his ailments (he has an asymmetrical prostate). And he meets with his wife—in luncheonettes and bookstores, places of relative “warmth”—to discuss a time and place to properly consummate their recent marriage; their apartment is so large, apparently, that they haven’t seen much of each other. Outside the limousine, anti-capitalist protests rage, an assassin’s plot on Packer’s life is verified, and his money is disappearing into the ether. He will eventually leave the car for good—the narrative tradition dictates he be stripped of that rich man’s armor—but he will never, so long as we know him, stop talking. All this talk is, in fact, what drew Cronenberg to adapt the novel in the first place—he wanted to hear the dialogue spoken out loud.
Writing in the Guardian in 2001, Zadie Smith cast DeLillo’s White Noise as a foundational text for “two generations of American and British fiction.” She goes on to describe the DeLillo style: “I read White Noise to experience, yes, a Frankfurt school comedy, in which every boy, girl, man, woman, black, white, lesbian, Jew, and Muslim speaks in exactly the same way: like DeLillo.” And she’s right: DeLillo’s characters do all talk the same, in what he seems to imagine is the lingua franca of the Way We Live Now—an edgy, autistic effusion that dances and jabs with meaning, desperate for understanding and already resigned to its being perpetually just out of reach. Here’s an exchange from Cosmopolis—recreated verbatim in the movie—between Packer and Vija Kinski, his “chief of theory”:
“It’s cyber-capital that creates the future. What is the measurement called a nanosecond?”
“Ten to the minus ninth power.”
“This is what.”
“One billionth of a second,” he said.
“I understand none of this. But it tells me how rigorous we need to be in order to take adequate measure of the world around us.”
“There are zeptoseconds.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
“Yoctoseconds. One septillionth of a second.”
“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today.”
Notice the reoccurrence of the proximal demonstrative adjective “this” where the distancing “that” would be more familiar and intuitive (i.e. “I understand none of that,” “That’s why something will happen soon,” etc.). All of DeLillo’s characters have the “this” tic, and I’ve come to think of it not as affectation (though it can read that way) but as their effort—DeLillo’s effort—to slow time, to keep everything in the present tense for as long as possible, to counteract the ephemeral nature of speech (of life!) by turning it into this that is happening rather than that which has already. Conversation becomes an object—and of course is one when it’s written in a book. I suspect Cronenberg’s attraction to hearing DeLillo performed has something to do with the temporal nature of film itself. Packer and company are thrust inevitably forward despite their best efforts to cast themselves in amber and hold themselves up to the light. Cronenberg has actually deepened DeLillo’s vision by turning it into moving pictures.
Speaking of those pictures: Cosmopolis, like everything else these days, was shot with a digital camera, but I can think of few other non-animated movies (Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten comes to mind) that feel so necessarily digital. The humid warmth of film would have been entirely inappropriate to the Cosmopolis space, floating along as it does on a kind of digital ice floe; as the day goes on (all the action takes place in a 24-hour period), Packer strives to get back to the lost land of analog—sex, violence, a life without “security”—only to find that isolation is just as likely to be a function of powerlessness as it is of power. When he finally comes face to face with his would-be killer—a destitute former employee named Benno, played by Paul Giamatti—they do what? The natural thing, of course: they sit down and they have a meeting.
For 22 minutes they have a meeting. This scene is maybe the most perverted thing that David Cronenberg has ever filmed. Here comes the climax, the life-and-death stuff—boy, are we ever outside the limousine now. And then the movie gets even moredeliberate and dryly funny. But it’s also perverse in its refusal to allow us to settle onto any kind of comfortable moral ground—Cronenberg will not solidify our identification with Benno, will not let us forget that although he’s been driven to something like madness by isolation and poverty (“I’m helpless in their system that makes no sense to me. You wanted me to be a helpless robot soldier but all I could be was helpless”) he’s also (1) Packer’s rhetorical equal, (2) holds the bigger gun, and (3) is no more or less a conceit than Packer himself. This last point is important: Cronenberg stages this final meeting as a conversation of equals trapped in a system that neither of them has devised, that neither of them has—at this point—any control over. All that’s left are words in this broken-down hovel at the end of the world. After a while, even those run out.
“I thought you would save me,” is the last line of the film, and though Cronenberg gives no mercy, he has never committed murder lightly. He’s the one wielding the power here, after all, and his perpetual ambivalence towards the technology on which his remarkable career relies has found its perfect match in DeLillo’s strange verbal rhythms. Cosmopolis is truly a nature morte, a beautiful slow-dancing dead thing that mesmerizes even as it seems to be mourning its audience, exhorting them to waste no time—here, now, in the future.