By Fernando Ganzo
Sometimes, one single scene can throw light upon a whole picture; but I don´t mean to come to this until the end. To begin with, let´s accept the following premise as a valid one: most films by David Cronenberg rest on the naturalistic concept of a repressed truth (key to the human being) that reveals itself through the mutation of the flesh, which leads to a recognizable aesthetic. There are several exceptions: Dead Ringers being the premise and A Dangerous Method its confirmation. Let´s think of A Dangerous Method. The fundamental truths of the characters mutate and express themselves through their speech, but their bodies do not change (literally) through the years. Their thoughts, however, changed rapidly. The narrative responded to this visually subtle changes through great dramatic effects (where Cronenberg used secretions in the past): time leaps, new characters that would burst in (Gross) to dramatically affect others (Judd), conversations through letters, mind-changing ellipsis that mysteriously didn´t age the characters… On the one hand, this is good because it allows the actors (Fassbender, Cassel) to freely explore the intellectual mutation of their characters without having to bother with the physical side of it. On the other (negative), the filmmaker has to rely on a vague aesthetic approach that tries to hold itself by turning to a qualité style that it is not troublesome (on the contrary, it lends the film a certain roughness), but it is notoriously incidental.
The struggle in Cosmopolis is two reconcile “the two Cronenbergs”:
1st. Who suffers the consequences of having to bring the aesthetics out of the mud? The story. The long beginning of Cosmopolis takes places in a limousine, where the young financial director Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) receives the visit of numerous characters as if they were ink dots in a Jackson Pollock painting. Dialogues are shot with a stunning decoupage, almost as if it was a great film about submarines. Outside the limousine, it´s a weird and unthinkable world in which Mr. Packer´s visitors disappear seemingly forever; and the collision between an inside world in which they speak about an outside vanishing one is quite beautiful. A group of anarchist rebels begins to gather outside the limo. It is a band that uses the rat as a symbol for the filthy secretion that capitalism refuses to acknowledge, and they begin to shake up the limo; up to then the car had been navigating through the streets as if it was a ship over an ocean without obstacles, effortlessly. The characters inside don´t react to that outside force, though they decide to suppress it. It is a force that has surface for the first time, and that comes from an outside world that seemed to be asleep. During this long sequence, Mr. Cronenberg has also suppressed his own story to favour the dialogue, of which we can only retain the glimmer of the aphorisms, but not the consequence of those on the characters (unlike A Dangerous Method then), which come from someplace else. This is a film, then, that it´s underdeveloped or developed in some other way; more aesthetically than with further work with the characters or the story. Or maybe (and this is the third case scenario, and a bleak one too) that has the wrong lead in it; a weak one, for Mr. Pattinson might be a perfect choice when it comes to sucking some other male´s toe, but incompetent when it comes to dialogue. He has a soft, empty-bodied voice, and the dialogue lacks shape or texture; for the texture of the film is just on the images. Regrettably, Mr. Pattinson´s voice is not one that it is worth listening to. Paulo Branco, producer of this film, should have suggested a Portuguese actor, someone with hardness in his face enough to sustain the long speeches that Eric Packer delivers.
2nd. Going back to the aesthetic expression of the fundamental truth of the character (mutating flesh), how does Cronenberg manage to do it in a film that it´s all dialogue? Actually, the evolution of the character physically surfaces in the film. For instance: he is erotically aroused when a girl friend visits him after she´s been jogging (and while he is getting an anal examination). Also, he wishes to be shot with an electric gun after he´s been having sex with his (stronger) black girlfriend, and he wants to shoot his own hand just to se the blood flow. The decision to cast Mr. Pattinson, then, follows along those lines; very much in the way Mr. Cronenberg used to work in the past. And if those exchanges work, they do so not because they are little steps in Mr. Packer´s long limo ride to the hairdressing salon, but because Mr. Pattinson´s character is humiliated and ill-treated: that is his nature as an actor. By not focusing on the genius of Mr. Pattinson to show the evolution of his character (like Mr. Fassbender did) or choosing to express it through the dialogue, the project to reconcile the old and the new Cronenberg fails, and we don´t know what changes is Eric Packer undergoing. In a way, it´s like having rice (ideas expressed through long dialogues) smeared with milk (aesthetics trough body language): a mix dessert.
However, the film is boosted by a second Frenchman (the first one being Mr. Cassel, from A Dangerous Method) emerging from the suppressed story: Packer exits from the limo and Mr. Amalric´s character approaches him (from behind the camera) and throws a pie into his face. At this point, the film needed to release that energy so badly, that we feel that Mr. Cronenberg himself has pushed Mr. Amalric into the frame. It´s not about action versus speech, for Mr. Cronenberg is particularly strong in scenes in which “nothing happens”. Then Mr. Amalric´s character dances as he delivers a political speech and tells of his experience as a pie-thrower. He is surrounded by a herd of photographers (who are trying to catch the moment), a bodyguard that wants to beat him up, and Mr. Packer himself, who first tries to recover from the impact and then acts as if he might confront the pie-thrower. In that moment, the camera stops. That´s it: the story has surfaced from its own subconscious, the actor has shined (Mr. Amalric), humour has been brought in, and we know that Mr. Packer will never be the same after this. Actually, it is not really about that scene in particular, but the way that scene illuminates the rest of Cosmopolis: like a beacon that shines both ways from the heart of the film making it clearer. We know that the speech by the pie-thrower will change Mr. Packer, and his body will be marked with pie. Both men are brought together. The assault will change Packer ideologically and his young face will be stained in our minds for the rest of the film. From now on, all his meetings will have more substantial sediment (ideologically speaking); even allowing for the further destruction of Mr. Packer´s body. It all comes from that pivotal moment in which, through action, a certain balance (of lasting effects) is found. As children, we should have ask to start the meal with the dessert and let that moment splash (with its creamy olivieirian fixation and its moments of humour) over those characters, for otherwise they would not have found a way to exploit their intricacies.
Translated from Spanish by Hugo Obregón
FRANCE, CANADA, PORTUGAL, ITALY. 2012. 108’
Director: David Cronenberg.
Script: David Cronenberg (from the novel by Don DeLillo).
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky.
Editing: Ronald Sanders.
Sound: Jean-Paul Mugel, Jonathan Acbard.
Music: Howard Shore.
Casting: Robert Pattinson, Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche,
Kevin Durand, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton,
Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric,
Emily Hampshire, Patricia McKenzie.