To properly discuss David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” I need to touch on something that film reviews rarely infer: the relationship between film and literature, in a general and historical sense. The challenge that cinema placed upon the primacy of literature in the last century has resulted in marketplace rivalry. Like any good products, the two began to differentiate. Film became the reserve of action, plot, emotion, and expressiveness. Literature moved inside the head, to the world of personalities, intricacies, and ideas.
One of the literary forms arising from this division has been the novel of ideas. These novels are distinguished by their intellect and interiorization. These are the books that dwell for sixty pages on the implications of a single idea. They take words and locate their origin, trace their genealogy, examine their modern meaning, inspect all the ham shavings of implication.
Consequently novels of ideas are considered unfilmmable. There have been few attempts to make them. While Cormac McCarthy Westerns have enough action to translate naturally to the screen, the only novel of ideas-turned-film popping to mind is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” the granddaddy novel of ideas by Milan Kundera. In adapting Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of ideas, the challenge facing David Cronenberg (“Videodrome,” “Eastern Promises”) doesn’t take sixty pages to describe. It’s this: how do you film a story that doesn’t want to be filmed?
His answer is savvy, but maybe too smart by half. Bravely, interestingly, but arguably only half-effectively–he violates the peace treaty that has held the line for a few decades. He makes a movie about people who sit and talk about ideas, as in a book. Cosmopolis goes so far as to have a final shootout with two men who would rather trade bons mots than bullets.
These rounds of sitting, to be precise, occur in the back of a limousine, where a young, libidinous billionaire (“Twilight”’s icy Robert Pattinson) crosses Manhattan on a mission for a haircut. His fortune is taking a haircut in a different way– he’s losing billions from investments in the Chinese yuan. As he rides around town he holds court with employees and advisors, doctors and lovers. These figures enter the limo, ruminate on money or the world and exit. His bodyguards warn him about a coming attempt on his life. In reality, this is not a trip for a haircut. It is his own funeral procession.
“Cosmopolis” is sauteed in a baste of glossy weirdness. Rats are everywhere. Protestors throw them at cars and parade under felt ones like Chinese New Year. Rational time evaporates. Pattinson’s Eric Packer experiences various spectral meetings with his ghostly wife (played Sarah Gadon), which seem to take place out of space and time. There’s a seductive stilted atmosphere, like a seventies Werner Herzog movie like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”
The results, as you might expect, are uneven and difficult to judge. Samantha Morton delivers a mesmerizing ten-minute monologue on progress, strife, time, and money. The problem for society, she tells the young master, is that billionaires have reduced money to an abstraction. What does it mean to spend a dollar when it is now essentially a point in a game? Other ramblings are ramblinger and flatter—difficult to follow, but interesting to nibble on.
“Cosmopolis” might have been easier to receive were it not for Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” last year. Rather than discuss ideas, the Cannes winner turns them into visuals. Its radical editing distorts time. In essence, “The Tree of Life” radicalizes its form so that it becomes a film of ideas. I think the failure to find that sort of radical departure is where “Cosmopolis” doesn’t achieve as much as it could.