"Where do these limos go at night?" Thoughts on Cosmopolis

Terry Gilliam's Zero Theorem is making its festival debut as I write this and by the time you read it, the first reviews will be up. At fandor's brilliant daily keynote, I shouldn't wonder, as David Hudson doesn't miss a thing over there, bless him. Those reviews will inevitably talk about where on the scale of Gilliam's work it will fall. Is it a late period disaster like The Brothers Grimm or more in spirit with his early masterpieces like Brazil? Or is this a new period for Gilliam? The problem with auteurists (myself included) is that we sort of have to snap up change and file it before it's had a chance to mean much of anything. Just look back on the reviews for David Cronenberg's masterpiece Cosmopolis. See if everyone of them doesn't want to find a precedent from his body of work to rope it in with. Some people saw it as a continuation of the techno-sickness of eXistenZ, some the auto-fixated eros of Crash, some the futuristic urban nightmares he started his career with, some the bloodless recent spate of polite mainstream-ready thrillers and dramas. Some people saw it as a film by David Cronenberg, one of the most beguiling and worthy artists I've been lucky enough to share most of an era with. Cosmopolis is a film I love not just because of the many things it gets right, but because it's both of a piece and a break with his work, in and out of context. It's an ensemble film, anchored by one of the most recognized and polarizing faces on planet earth, it's set in the near future and has the cold stillness of science fiction, but everything here is distinctly plausible. It's set mostly in the back of a limousine but feels huge in scope. It's about money and the only thing we ever see purchased are sandwiches. 

I suppose that's not entirely fair to either the Don Delillo novel its based on or to Cronenberg himself. You could say it's setting is money, though that needs clarification. Money is everything, it practically drips from pores like sweat, it is the doing and undoing of our hero, but there's something much more particular guiding Cosmopolis. It appears to me at times to be a film about affect. Pattinson's Bronx accent, apparently a dead ringer for Delillo's, mammoth Kevin Durand and his endearing speech impediment. The way everyone seems to talk through each other. Samantha Morton's eyes that go from dead to sparkling in no time at all, not to mention her diction and her slow deflation as she starts drinking. Mathieu Amalric's haircut and shirt, lifted from a college kid. Sarah Gadon's luminescent innocence refusing to acknowledge the carnivorous revenant she married. It's about Metric's keyboards snaking around Howard Shore's score. The nebulous tense in which the barber speaks. Toronto ably standing in for New York, proving all cities are one in a day terror like this. It's about extras behaving theatrically. It's about someone trying to humanize limousines because he can't pull the same trick with people. He asks where they go at night, a question he never asks of the dozens of people who gate crash his life. It's about blue screens.

The film opens with a deliberate snafu on that score. In the first shots inside sociopath/wunderkind Eric Packer's limousine, the green screen displaying manhattan whirring by out the window is bad. Real bad. Deliberately bad. It's fake. Why would Cronenberg do this? Later in the film they nail the effect and you totally buy the green screen windows as showing a real street, so why fuck up in the first scene? Because he wants you to feel safe, like the world of the limo is plastic, fake, untouchable. So that when a scene later he opens the door and steps onto a busy Manhattan street and penetrates the door of a cab parked in traffic next to him it feels like the purest magic. He might as well have walked off the screen and into the theatre, Purple Rose of Cairo-style. Cosmopolis is all about the the illusion of safety, that Packer is the master of the universe he's created for himself. He can simply conquer space and time because of the wealth he's amassed. We similarly think that a Cronenberg film, after the harmless pastoral of A Dangerous Method made us lower our guard for this film starring the world's most seen male face, will somehow not break in on our privacy. The safety of the studio, of our expectations, of our baggage, is not safety at all. Someone or something asymmetrical waits for all of us. Watch once to be horrified, watch forever after that to be comforted by details, nuances, affectations and the touch of an artist who will never finish evolving. 

No comments: