Cosmopolis, 108 mins, rated TBA opens 2 August 2012


(This is an earlier version of my review as published in the August 2012 NSW Law Society Journal)

There’s a curiosity in cinema where two films are released on the same topic at around the same time.  Examples are: in 1996 both Tornado! (Nosseck) and Twister (de Bont); in 1998 both Deep Impact (Leder) and Armageddon (Bay); and in 2005 both Capote (Miller) and Infamous (McGrath). There are many other film pairs like these. Is it co-incidence, or something in the zeitgeist? No one knows. And it’s happened again.

This week I saw two films both featuring a protagonist who rides around a big city in a stretch limo over the course of one day, for the full length of the film, interacting with other characters in a series of vignettes. One film was Leos Carax’s very strange film Holy Motors, which divided audiences recently at Cannes Film Festival. The other was David Cronenberg’s latest, Cosmopolis.

Cronenberg not only directed, but also wrote the screenplay for Cosmopolis, adapting Don DeLillo’s 2003 book of the same name. Cronenberg has been busy lately. His film A Dangerous Method, about the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, has only just left our cinemas.

DeLillo’s book also divided readers and critics. One critic found the book “eerily brilliant”, while others considered it a victory of style over substance. The same argument is likely to be had over the film, but I’m on the side of “eerie brilliance”.

Cronenberg  took only 6 days to adapt the screenplay from the novel, because the novel’s dialogue is so marvellous. He said:

I started typing down all the dialogue from the book on my computer without changing or adding anything. It took me 3 days. When I was done, I wondered, “Is there enough material for a film? I think so”.

As a result, the dialogue is very “literary”, not naturalistic. But I found it completely entrancing: more akin to poetry than prose.

It helps that Cronenberg has assembled a fascinating cast to speak this poetic dialogue. First, he has recruited teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson, famous for playing a vampire in the Twilight series of films (one every year since 2008, with one more due in 2012). He plays the lead: 28-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer, who rides across New York in a limo over the course of one day in order to get his hair cut. Pattinson acquits himself very well, handling the arch dialogue with wit and precision.

A passing parade of actors encounters Packer one by one, mostly in the limo but occasionally outside. Among others, there’s his Head of Security (Kevin Durand), Chief of Technology (a twitchy Jay Baruchel), a former lover and current art advisor (Juliet Binoche), Chief of Theory (Samantha Morton, who has the most abstract dialogue to spout), and his obscenely wealthy wife (Sarah Gadon). Packer’s doctor even conducts daily health checks in the limo, examining his prostate while Packer simultaneously discusses the economy of China and flirts with his Chief of Finance (Emily Hampshire).

As Packer moves slowly across a gridlocked city (the US President is in town), his Currency Analyst warns him that he is over-exposed to the Chinese Yuan (in the book – 9 years old now – it was the Yen: how global finance has changed since 2003!). His Chief of Security warns him of a credible threat of assassination (of Packer, not the President), and protestors crowd the streets, daubing the limo with paint. Will Packer’s impassive facade crack under such pressure?

The answer comes in the lead-up to his tense confrontation with Paul Giamatti, playing a disgruntled former employee. It’s another brilliant performance from Giamatti, whose search for life’s meaning is the antithesis of Packer’s ruthless detachment.

There are no answers to the Global Financial Crisis here. That’s not so surprising given that the book predated the GFC by some years. But that’s also what’s so astonishing. The book has anticipated so much of what transpired in those intervening years – even down to Rupert Murdoch’s pie-in-the-face! And Cronenberg has managed to transform this difficult, wordy, prescient book into a vehicle as sleek and polished as a limousine.