Review: David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’ Is An Impenetrable Fog of Poetic Nonsense

By  · Published on August 16th, 2012

Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our Cannes 2012 coverage. Cosmopolis hits theaters this weekend, August 17th.

Though it is faintly vulgar to talk of any actors in terms of only one project, who would have thought a couple of years ago that the two lead actors from Twilight would both feature In Competition at Cannes, starring in brave and bold adaptations of two iconic, but problematic American novels? Two days after Kristen Stewart’s next release – Walter Salles’ On The Road – screened in the Theatre Lumiere, the same screen played host to the Robert Pattinson-starring adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

The film follows Eric Packer (Pattinson), a young billionaire asset manager on a journey across a thronging New York City in his limousine, flanked by his head of security Torval (Kevin Durand) in order to get a hair cut. Along the way he encounters colleagues (Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton, and Philip Nozuko), protesters (Mathieu Amalric), his wife (Sarah Gadon) and lovers (Juliette Binoche and Patricia McKenzie), all of whom contribute to unravel his cold, clinical world. It helps little that the New York he seeks to cross is in open revolt, with anti-corporation demonstrations making way for violence, and somewhere amongst it, an unknown killer stalks Eric.

Billed as an odyssey full of characters who leave marks, the reality of Cosmopolis is far from it. Purporting to be a stylish anti-Capitalist portrait, played out as Eric’s New York fever dream, the film is actually just a self-conscious, self-indulgent mess of impenetrable poetic nonsense. Yes it bears a striking gloss, and is shot basically well – which of course it should be given Cronenberg’s association with film-making – but it is way too showy without the necessary substance, and as a result feels fatally hollow, and worryingly unengaging.

There is almost certainly cause to lay a lot of the blame with the source material: DeLillo’s novel is typically provocative, and when you strip away notions of “cultural importance,” it isn’t actually very good. The script adapted from that book seems to have unfortunately believed the mythos of the source and is just as uninspiring despite its lofty, arty aspirations. It is obtuse, abstract beyond redemption and though there is certainly some intentional reflection of a fundamental aspect of Eric’s character (his fundamental urge to escape the complex, baffling world of financial business through sensual arousal), it sways towards impenetrable waters way too many times.

The problem is, any attempt to imbue something with too much meaning, and too much style over substance without restraint leads to the creation of something with very little enduring meaning, or too little engagement for that meaning to keep the audience’s attention. Which would explain the snores in the cinema.

Robert Pattinson does well enough with the material, convincingly aloof and alien, and coping with the necessary rampant biological urges well without caricaturing, but really his is a rather thankless task, afforded only overtly-poetic, heavily self-conscious dialogue and shallow dynamics with other characters. Dialogue is ornate and poetic, but it has absolutely no realism, posturing questions met with other posturing questions that seem to believe their own cosmic importance, but the fog of poetic license is just too thick. Almost everybody else just floats in and out of Eric’s fever dream, offering little beyond a faint glimmer of entertainment in recognizing their faces, which indicates something fundamentally broken about the film.

There are however, a couple of exceptions. Both Paul Giamatti and Mathieu Amalric offer comparatively strong performances, adding a human touch that is missing from all of the other characters, with usually admirable talents like Samantha Morton and Juliette Binoche disappearing under a cloud of obtuse dialogue and empty rhetoric. Giamatti in particular stands out as a deeply disturbed and disgruntled former employee, offering the only performance resembling anything close to understanding of the character, and easily the only performance with recognizable Cronenberg-like features.

And while the film sits at odds with the majority of what Cronenberg has so far released, there are touches that remain decidedly his – in Eric’s over-riding obsession with penetration, his almost animal sexuality and the provocative punctuation of bloody violence. There’s also a semi-humorous fascination with Eric’s asymmetrical prostate, which is curiously exchanged as currency in various loaded conversations. But the story is just not engaging enough, and dare I say it, not worthy of Cronenberg’s attentions, for all of his attempts to draw out the meaning. I just wish there was more of Cronenberg’s usual fantastical elements, and less of the posturing.

Cosmopolis is effectively like an accomplished painting of a pig in a bowler hat with a cigar: welcoming praise for its superficial technical aspects, and definitely representing some grand, faintly recognisable message, but you’re not entirely sure what it’s really trying to say, nor whether it is particularly welcome.

The Upside: The technical aspects are all sound, and Giamatti offers a great performance.

The Downside: All-in-all, Cosmopolis is a mostly impenetrable exercise in posturing and self-importance.

Complete Cannes 2012 Coverage

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