David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel is filled with a plethora of critiques against the decadence of the rich. The consistent evocation of the rat as a symbol representing wealth, the voracious multiple appetites of the protagonist and the general air of self-destruction that permeates the protagonist’s journey offer any number of obvious attacks on the self-indulgence of the rich.
But what makes Cosmopolis such a fascinating, bizarre and, dare I say, subversively amusing film is how it goes about delivering these critiques. Abandoning any shred of commercialism cinema, the film is filled with non-sequiturs, refuses to offer a cohesive narrative arc and denies the audience a meaningful and satisfying conclusion. Through the lens of Comolli and Narboni, this is a cinema that stylistically and thematically pits itself against the capitalist system of film production.
Take for instance the dialogue. Characters often talk in these grotesque, verbose circles. They either fail to say much of anything or go about saying something in the most drawn out and exaggerated way possible. Other times, simple phrases or questions are rephrased in such a way that they become uneven, bizarre and unnecessary obtuse.
The film’s “quest” is a trip across New York City to get a haircut. Hot shot Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) insists on a particular barber. He also insists on going to the barber shop instead of having a barber come to his office. He can afford the convenience, but he wants to indulge a whim. The entire film is predicated on a childish insistence that is only indulged because the man who has it is rich.
If the premise prompts a “so what?” from the audience, it is achieved its gold. There’s not a point beyond the pettiness that simply indulging in the power of wealth. Likewise, Eric is caught up in a cycle of self-destructive behavior. It’s never psychologically explained, and leads to unexplained behavior, but the point is to demonstrate the ultimately self-destructive cycles of those who able to take whatever they want.
While these elements make Cosmopolis a subversive critique of the behavior of the wealthy, denying traditional conceptions of narrative and entertainment in film, there’s a particular pleasure to be gained from the film. If one gives oneself over to the bizarre beats and presentation of the film, Cosmopolis is comedic. The exaggeration of the general elements gives the film a biting, satirical edge.
Likewise, the aforementioned dialog is peppered with all number of memorably obtuse and goofy lines. “My prostrate is asymmetrical…What does it mean?” is the best example. The line is funny because of the frankness with which an intimate feature is divulged. But it’s even funnier because Eric is trying to understand its deeper meaning. Such a meaningless and inconsequential quirk of the human body leads Eric into a hilarious descent into self-examination.
It’s a reminder that Cosmopolis should be taken with a grain of salt. That some of the joy of such an aggressively anti-traditional film is that not everything in the film has to be given some significance. To go that way is to perpetuate that which Cosmopolis hopes to challenge: capitalist consumerism. Not everything has to mean something in Cosmopolis, which in the process means that for those who give themselves over to it, the film is a lot more interesting from moment to moment because it’s not bogged down in trying to be meaningful or progressing some idea at every last moment.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing