Monday, December 24, 2012

Catchup Review: COSMOPOLIS

A fable of the 1%. Eric Packer, citizen of the oxygenated bubble of the billionaires club, wants a haircut. His security man reasonably suggests he spend some of his unimaginable wealth calling a hairdresser into the office. Eric wants the mirrors and smell of pomades, soap and the sound of clippers. It's a rootsy thing. So he gets in the limo and heads across town. Traffic's slow. The president's in town and creating traffic jams. Eric's favourite rapper whose beats supply the sound of one of his elevators is also going across town but in an open casket, slowly, mourned by thousands. There are anarchist riots. There are sexual opportunities and places to lunch and dine. It takes a long time to get across town. Eric, in the capsule of the limo with his data screens in the armrests, vodka and ablutionary facilities, is about to watch his life change from the root upwards. Oh, there's also a threat on his life.

This might be thriller territory except that the interest is far more in the examination of the pieces of his lifestyle, his power, health and business methods. If you thought the description in my crammed opening par made for action be warned that this is one of the coldest, most inert, most talkative examinations of a character you are likely to see outside of experimental cinema (and by experimental I mean lab conditions).

But it does play fair with this. Once in the limousine we see the impeccably groomed and smooth faced Robert Pattinson in the car and the back projection of the city behind him and for the first few shots it looks fake. If your tv has a high frequency setting like 100 Hz try it and see how that organic look of film with its grain and colour richness suddenly looks like cheap home video. That's what this looks like.

It's not a mistake. If you don't much about David Cronenberg then wiki or imdb are your friends but for now you do need to know that he is an extremely deliberate filmmaker. After Videodrome when his budgets started improving and his skill grew ever finer there is nothing that happens on screen or comes through the speakers that he hasn't intended. No awkwardly stumbled line or inappropriate facial expression is chance or lack of skill. In any way at all. So when we see our protagonist looking like the groom in a wedding video we are being clued in to the idea that we are going to see a lot of surface, a lot of skin and no heart, and it will be our job to find whatever's beneath. If we don't want to do that work we shouldn't be watching this movie.

This movie is talk. It's so much talk that it can be easy to miss the action and the visual feast going on. The talk is often abstruse but it's not hard to get the gist without feeling left out (indeed, if you were to try and follow it all the first time around you will be left behind very quickly). Keep your focus on how Packer's character changes throughout and you'll be ok. This is not an easy thing though. The verbal delivery is so dry to create distance between these people and the rest of humanity that you might want to pack a jogger's bottle before you sit down in front of it.

Since The Dead Zone (a Cronenberg film that even fans forget to count because it is so early and conventional)  David Cronenberg has split his jobs into increasingly mainstream fare like The Fly, Eastern Promises or A Dangerous Method and the products of his own personal laboratory like Spider, Crash or this one. While all of them look like his work and he's never softened into unrecognisable normality like Scorsese did, the gap between these approaches is wider than that of Guillermo Del Toro who jobs in action sequels in English to fund his singular masterpieces in Spanish. Maybe Cronenberg has just been doing that, playing the game here and reinventing it there on smaller budgets with the idea that his peaks will appear to history from among the innovative pieces. Well, history will take its pick.

Meantime we have Samuel Beckett in New York. People delivering lines rich in information but low on emotion. The great Samantha Morton's near monologue is like something out of a Matthew Barney video it is so poised and creepily monotonous. Juliet Binoche's turn is unsettlingly sexy. Sarah Gadon as Packer's wife is so sexlessly groomed and prepped she might be from the cast of Mad Men. Paul Giamatti is a real treat. His is the final line. It makes sense of a lot of the preceeding and it kills.

I don't know more about Don De Lillo who wrote the novel pon which this is based than my failing to enjoy an earlier book his lent me by a friend. I considered that to be a kind of lo-cal Anthony Burgess meets John Irving, all quirk and scholarship but no substance. Remembering that made me wonder what Cosmopolis could be like on the page as one thing Cronenberg has shown a genuinely astouding talent for in the past in his knack at imaginative literary adaptation. Crash and Naked Lunch, for example, play like companion pieces to their novels rather than rote visualisations of them, they extend the source material into cinema; you can enjoy both without one experience threatening the other. Now it looks like I'll be breaking my vow of non readership of De Lillo just to find out.

Even if I hate the book it will have been worth it.

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