Screening Log #66: Cosmopolis (2012)

Written by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Don DeLillo
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand, and Paul Giamatti



As the internet becomes more and more prevalent, as it becomes more deeply embedded into the personal, social, and economic, daily lives of people, there is a corresponding movement toward the commodification of information. Capitalism is nothing if not a dynamic organism, economic Darwinism in action, and, as such, whole economies experience something like a transubstantiation of marketable goods: that which was once ephemeral, abstract, becomes tangible and movable, existing at once as commodity, but without concrete locus. What follows is a peculiar kind of chaos as the immediate, the body and its place in the world, is left standing in a social vacuum, receding in its economic, and subsequently interpersonal, importance. The effacement of the personal results in a movement away from the local toward the global, eroding nationalism in favour of the larger global market.

It is in this wake of information’s emergence as capital that David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis takes place. Eric Packer, Robert Pattinson, a young, coolly calculating, and distanced, billionaire decides to travel across New York to receive a haircut from his life long barber on possibly the worst day he could: the president of the US is in town and, unbeknownst to Packer, his favourite hip-hop superstar has passed away, his funeral clogging the streets further. A “global citizen with a New York set of balls”, Packer has amassed his fortune through asset management, by assaying trends in various markets, analyzing the information and predicting the direction that the market will take. He has married another supremely wealthy socialite, Elise Shifrin, Sarah Gadon, who he fleetingly sees and who deflects his desire to have sex at every turn, preferring to direct her energy into her poetry.

From this set-up the film becomes a series of encounters in Packer’s limo. Guarded by his head of security Torval, Kevin Durand, Packer has discussions with art dealers, business associates, an examination from a doctor – he has them daily – and a friend who knew his favourite hip-hop act. His limousine slowly crawls through the congested and increasingly anarchic streets as his exchanges unfold in a stylized and flat, disaffected, dialogue that plays out not unlike Mament on downers. Packer’s exchanges are injected with affirmations of knowledge, statements are met often with “I know this”, or “This is true”, and, on less frequent occasions, “I don’t know this”. Packer’s world is dictated by the discourse of knowledge and mastery, its lexicon influenced by his immersion in the economy of knowing. One conversation with his “Advisor on Theory”, Vija Kinsky, Samantha Morton, revolves around the increasing aware of the increasingly infinite slices of time, that the economic system was claiming time as capital; where labour was once the catalyst in the efficient employment of time, now it is time itself that generates the labour. Again the ability of capitalism to ingest abstract qualities and regurgitate them as monetized commodities emerges.

Contrasting with this detached style of engagement, Packer fixates on physical interactions. There’s a desperate attempt on his part to seduce his erstwhile wife who he appropriately only spends time with in diners and restaurants. The fulfillment of physical appetites is intrinsically positioned within their discourse despite Packer’s multiple sexual dalliances with other women throughout the day. Packer’s desire to control his physical knowledge is reflected in his stubborn persistence about receiving his hair cut. Indeed, where Cronenberg’s interest in the relationship between the mind and body initially manifested in radical and shocking visuals and scenarios, his later work posits these sort of more subtle interactions between the physical and mental facets of an individual. In many ways, Packer’s insistence on receiving a haircut, and his later abandonment of this goal mid-haircut, is essentially a logical internalization of Max Ren’s engagement with the “new flesh” of Videodrome via radical physical violence.

Violence has a place, too, in Cosmopolis. Throughout the course of his odyssey, Packer receives updates of threats to his safety, received from his office, Freudianly named “The Complex”, and relayed his Torval. At one point, having exited his car, Packer is pied by international anarchist Andre Petrescu, Mathieu Amalric, who claims to have passed up the chance to pie to president to attack Packer instead and lists Castro and Michael Jordan among his targets. This incident, however, is referred to as dessert by Torval who states that the actual threat looms still. Packer’s encounter with this man, Benno Levin, Paul Giamatti, an ex-employee of Packer’s unfolds as a sort of direct counterpoint to the Petrescu incident. Action is delayed by discussion and questioning, debate and philosophizing; Levin existing as a manifestation of the violence perpetuated by the commodifcation of the abstract. Where there was once an external causality required for violence, a sense of political or social efficacy, Packer posits Levin’s act as an abstraction derived from the actions of others, bereft of its own agency. A correlation emerges here between Packer’s own speculative work with knowledge, creating nothing in itself, but rather consisting of a management of ideas, and Levin’s “work” of potential violence.

Cronenberg’s usual angles are present in his visual framing of Cosmopolis‘ narrative, but the story lacks any real occasion for images even as classically ornate as those of Vienna in his A Dangerous Method. Clearly infatuated with the style and content of DeLillo’s dialogue, Cronenberg has created a film rich with ideas communicated through words moreso than images. There is an appropriateness to this, however, when Packer speaks on the idea of reputation early in the film, stating that a man is built on words and destroyed by a syllable. In this, Cronenberg’s film reflects the way capitalism infects even the smallest increments of its abstraction, the way the body seeks to constantly deconstruct itself, the image, undone.

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