That’s One Expensive Haircut

Cosmopolis ***1/2 (out of five)

Hyper-stylised, cold, cerebral, difficult, stylish, at times visually sublime and at times unintentionally humorous, Cosmopolis is David Cronenberg back in Cronenberg Land, after the much more conventional A Dangerous Method.

Essentially a film of ideas – based on Don DeLillo’s very literary 2003 novel (I think there’s a reason that DeLillo’s many, much-lauded books have never been filmed) – the plot is minuscule:  extremely wealthy young investment guru Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) has his limo take him across midtown Manhattan for a haircut on the day the US President is in town and there are threatened protests. Along the way he meets up with various people, including his wife, his lovers, and some business associates. And maybe someone’s trying to kill him.

If that makes it sounds like a “thriller”, it isn’t, in any traditional sense. there are no chases, no action sequences. Most of the action is confined to the back of the limousine. It isn’t a horror film, either, in the way that many of Cronenberg’s early works were. But, like the films of David Lynch, it is drenched in dread, the world of the film being almost completely sinister, unstable, perverse and seemingly very dangerous.

The theme is capitalism. Most of the discussion in the film – and it is a film full of discussion  – centres on money, wealth, poverty, and the potential war between wealth and poverty. There are characters who worship money, characters who are disgusted by it and characters for whom the whole concept is some sort of wonderful, cosmic game. Eric is seemingly in crisis about it – hence the action taking place on this particular day. I have never seen Pattinson in a performance I admired, but he works well here. He is not required to “act” – in a realistic sense. He speaks and performs as a Cronenberg creation in a Cronenberg world, and the very thing that I find extremely annoying in the other films I’ve seen him in – his lack of sincerity, his glacial remove – fit Eric kind of perfectly. I won’t even mention who else is in the film, because part of the fun is seeing who will get into the limo next, and a few of them are major movie stars.

How “real” we’re meant to read the world is open to interpretation. As stated, the film is very stylised. At the beginning, the images outside the windows of the limousine look like bad green-screen replacement (like images outside of cars in cheap colour films from the 1950s); obviously this is intentional, because every facet of this film is thought out with extreme precision: there was no improvisation here. Inside the limo, the street noises are barely audible, but even when Mike has dialogue in other locations (most notably two coffee shops) the sounds of the other diners are muted, while he and his partner in the scene are abnormally audible; it is as though Mike’s world is so privileged that everyday sounds are somehow able to be bought out of existence, like he has some cosmic remote control. the result of all of this is that the film feels like a dream, or nightmare. It’s important to latch onto this (and run with it) early, because the dialogue – I’m guessing much of it lifted directly from the novel – is also incredibly stylised. No-one in real life talks remotely like any of the people in this film, and this is alienating unless you accept it quickly, and move on. (The film’s unintentional laughs arise from the most ludicrous and extreme examples of this heightened language style).

How much you enjoy this film probably depends less on whether you like DeLillo’s book than it does upon how much you like Cronenberg’s style. You might hate this movie – for its real pretension, its pontification, its flagrantly anti-dramatic structure, its sheer impertinence. Then again, these might be all the things that endear you to it. I’ve always responded to Cronenberg, and I did here. It felt like one of my favourite artists getting back into his element, while still taking major risks. No-one will ever say this movie is one of the greats. But you can’t say it’s anything other than unique.

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