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Cosmopolis Review: Surprise! Robert Pattinson Plays Detached Billionaire Well

By Caspar Salmon | Film | August 17, 2012 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | August 17, 2012 |

Cosmopolis spends a laudable amount of time being entirely bewildering before it starts to make sense, about 45 minutes into its run-time. Before then, it presents us with an off-puttingly formal world of shiny surfaces and technology as characters discuss in a weird, high-flown vernacular the fluctuation of the Yuan, the obsolescence of computers, sex and the price of art. Robert Pattinson, playing Eric Packer, a rich and detached billionaire, sits in his limousine with sunglasses on, receiving people (played by Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton) with whom he holds these conversations — discussions which fly off at a tangent, which seem like so many confrontations or duels rather than talks. The spectator cannot help feel alienated, as all this is shown without explanation or apology. We are experiencing Packer’s sense of dislocation first hand, and it is unsettling.

Packer is a young, rich man whose intelligence and sense of entitlement mask a profound world-weariness. As his day proceeds and he meets with his art dealer/lover (Binoche), his financial adviser or his wife (played by Sarah Gadon) with whom he has a marriage of convenience, we understand that Packer stands to lose much of his money and is undergoing a serious crisis. We see him trying to experience “real” sensations — he wants to eat, fuck, get a haircut — but keeps being brought back to his formal existence with its distancing rules. Around his limousine, hordes of discontented masses protest financial inequality — an uncanny mirroring of the recent situation with Occupy Wall Street. Packer is on edge: someone wants to kill him. In a bid to experience and learn something, he shoots his bodyguard and prepares to meet his fate.

Throughout this, a pleasing act of deterioration takes place, as Packer’s limousine becomes defaced with graffiti by demonstrators, he gets a lopsided haircut, and receives a pie in the face from an anarchist protester who throws tarts at people (wickedly played by Mathieu Amalric, clearly reveling in lines such as “I fell on Michael Jordan from a tree! I quiched the Sultan of fucking Brunei!”). Increasingly disheveled and smelling of sex from his encounters with Binoche and a security guard, Packer is a ghost of himself by the end — a change which Pattinson registers well, showing how his character’s steel is still there below his disorientation and deconstructed state. In a final, fascinating confrontation with Paul Giamatti — the schlub to Pattinson’s golden boy — Packer’s mistakes are revealed to him. It is a pretty grim finale, one which is unsparing in its look at modern society and the way we have denatured ourselves.

The film is as polished and great-looking as can be expected. Cronenberg responds well to his main actor, fitting him out in a suit that becomes a little wrecked by the end, and filming him in close-ups with harsh lighting. There are plenty of great shots — Pattinson in close-up, lit by the fluorescent white tracking light of a gun, for instance. The cinematography excellently captures the sense of modern alienation, showing the city in all of its strangeness and dehumanizing state. All of the sets are beautifully designed, from the interior of Pattinson’s limo to the grim cityscape in the last few scenes.

The language of the script is very hard to describe, in a register somewhere between exalted lyricism and chatty, with an emphasis on the actual meaning of words. There is a great moment early on when Packer and his financial assistant get carried away discussing the implications of rats becoming a worldwide currency; an imagery the film takes up with several strange scenes involving rats later on in the film. Not all the actors excel at delivering this chewy dialogue: I thought Juliette Binoche got a couple of her line readings slightly wrong, and Samantha Morton had to do an American accent as an added obstacle to her natural flow. Pattinson, who initially seems merely wooden, is rather good in his role and seems to understand what he’s saying well enough. The script can be a little heavy-handed though: Giamatti’s character reinforcing the importance of “the unbalanced, the lopsided” in humans mere minutes after Pattinson rushes out his hairdresser’s mid-haircut with a skewiff hairdo, was slightly forced, and I groaned at a moment when Packer tells his wife that he had his car “prousted,” i.e. lined with cork to isolate sound. What the allusion to Proust serves here other than to display a little linguistic invention is beyond me.

Cosmopolis ultimately serves its function very well of being deeply Cronenbergian — reflecting his key themes of identity and isolation in the modern world — while doing justice to Don De Lillo’s source material in its scope and lyrical screenplay.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.