David Cronenberg films are never simple. The first one I saw was VIDEODROME in 1983, and I went because I thought it was a horror flick and because Debbie Harry was in it. I don’t think I have ever been so surprised. VIDEODROME was Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK from a whole new angle.
COSMOPOLIS, Cronenberg’s latest, is a Chautauqua in a stretch limo hosted by Capitalism Personified. As the limo crawls through a New York traffic jam, its skin becomes graffiti art, while inside, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), who is mainly looking for a place to get his hair cut, concerns himself during the delay with his own entertainment and education, oblivious to the madness outside. Packer is an inquiring but emotionless creature who, like corporate America, believes that everything is for sale and is genuinely puzzled when something is not.
The casting of Robert Pattinson (TWILIGHT) as Packer is kind of brilliant, because Cronenberg’s audience will have no expectations at all for him, but will know his name. (Hardly anyone is eclectic enough to enjoy both NAKED LUNCH and TWILIGHT. Some of Pattinson’s fans might find their way to this film, and be as surprised as I was with VIDEODROME in 1983.
If the film lacks anything, it would be a memorable cinematic moment. There is the guy (played by Nadeem Umar-Khitab) who tosses dead rats around a restaurant in unspecified protest, but other than that, there is no single scene one can point to and call unforgettable. The best part of COSMOPOLIS is the final scene in whicH Packer confronts the ex-employee who plans to assassinate him. Paul Giamatti and Packer have a revealing discussion about violence and its proper place in human existence for some 23 minutes, but its impact is verbal, not visual.
The women in any Cronenberg film tend to be there to service the male characters (not necessarily sexually). Claire Niveau, Bujold’s character in DEAD RINGERS (1988), is a bit of an exception and quite self-sufficient, but even she is developed as a character only because of a physical abnormality that furthers the story (trifurcate uterus with 3 cervixes).
In COSMOPOLIS, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon, who is also Ruby Ogden in 4 episodes of MURDOCH MYSTERIES) is Packer’s female counterpart in emotionless efficiency. She is stylish and decorative, and they enjoy only conversation together. With Didi Francher (Juliette Binoche) he has sex with as little nudity as possible. With Kendra Hays (Patricia McKenzie) Packer has sex with a whole lot of nudity. The only female who actually has anything intelligent to say is Vija Kinski (Samantha Morton) Packer’s chief of theory. She expounds free market theory in a way that might terrify the ghost of Milton Friedman.
PASTEURIZED (the cheese stands alone)
“The universe is asymmetric and I am persuaded that life, as it is known to us, is a direct result of the asymmetry of the universe or of its indirect consequences.”
—- Louis Pasteur
In COSMOPOLIS we discover (after an unusually lengthy prostate exam conducted in the limo while Packer is having a conversation with a woman) that Eric Packer has an asymmetrical prostate. Packer seems to interpret this asymmetry to be his own special key to the cosmos and the source of his powers. (In reality, the condition is probably caused by an infection.) Later, interrupting his haircut, he leaves the barbershop with his hair only partially cut, making it asymmetrical as well. When he discovers that his would-be killer has the same glandular asymmetry, he internally accepts the inevitability of his death, because only a man with powers similar to his own could possibly have the right to kill him.