Don DeLillo’s novella from 2003 Cosmopolis is directed by David Cronenberg. Robert Pattinson plays a Wall Street trader called Eric Packer, he gets into a stretch limo to go across Manhattan to get a hair cut. His bodyguard tells him about threats to his life and to that of the President. Juliette Binoche has sex with him in his car, Samantha Morton gets in and talks, then a black friend tells him about an Islamic rapper whose funeral is passing by. Packer meets his wife in a library and in a cafe where demonstrators fling rats at the customers (rats are spoken of as units of currency). Packer speaks of buying a Rothko gallery, he shoots his bodyguard and ends up having a long dialogue with Paul Giamatti’s disgruntled employee who wants to kill Packer…
A film critic has noted the similarities between Cosmopolis and The Swimmer (which I have reviewed). In The Swimmer Burt Lancaster plays an American man of success whose journey through swimming pools leads to misery and despair, an effective parable on Vietnam. Cosmopolis is different from The Swimmer insofar as Packer (unlike Lancaster) does not start out with any illusions. Packer is a multi millionaire nihilist who looks as if he wants some sort of closure as he intends to travel to an old seedy hairdressers New York. Lancaster in The Swimmer never expected to end up in squalor. People Packer meet do not disillusion him, they and he exchange observations on the nature of money, sex, time, and death. Packer seems unconcerned that his car is graffitied by protesters, he is not even fazed by being attacked.
Packer and his guests talk elliptically, allusively, and sometimes philosophically. Now and again it can sound like pretentious waffle, full of cod wisdom about capitalism’s cannibalistic tendencies, about the nullity of wealth, about the meaning of desire for wealth and the futility of individual protest. Although the film is suposed to be about the present (written just before the credit crunch) it does seem more futurist. The limo glides around a New York that seems to have more in common with Blade Runner and even I Robot. When they pass an Islamic funeral cortege in which a rapper’s hearse is accompanied by Dervishes, one thinks of the ethnic mixture of Blade Runner. The decadence of the wealth/poverty juxtaposition reminds us of the cliche of dystopia: of the unrealizability of perfection and the illusions of Utopia. Packer gets out of his gilded limo to wander in a world of poverty and chaos. When he talks to the Giamatti character, they speak in a broken down block of flats fit for Samuel Becket dialogue. Giamatti turns the cliche of the disgruntled victim of corporate hubris into a theological tortured mystic. Packer himself is a mixture of Citizen Kane (we wonder if his haircut is a kind of “Rosebud” quest, a sort of metonym of a lost paradise), The Man who Fell to Earth, and Howard Hughes (like Hughes, Packer is the beneficiary of obsessive medical check ups). Comparisons with Gordon Gekko of Wall Street are misplaced, Packer has no time for the childish tripe of “greed is good”. Packer is bemused by his own power, how he can buy not just a Rothko, but a whole gallery of his paintings. Possession of a Rothko is of course a status symbol of wealth, the abstract expressionist dark chambers of this suicidal painter seem a perfect backdrop for the morbidity of unaccountable riches.
The car journey is that of the soul immersed in the degradations of capitalist commodification. This suits David Cronenberg’s concerns, he has made for example Naked Lunch and The Fly where reality has been violently subverted to a deranged visionary project, in Cosmopolis capitalism does this. The dialogue would repay a couple more visits to this film. Pattinson acquits himself well as an anti-hero, bland and in love with death, in this superb moral fable about capitalism.