It’s very fitting that Cosmopolis opens with a poetry quotation and credits over a work of abstract art, because that’s what this film is. The screenplay reads like a collection of poetry. The film looks and feels like a work of abstract art. This movie is filled to the brim with a wide variety of themes, including conflict between rich and poor, our connection with technology, our search for meaning and importance in life, the increasing speed at which the world moves, our tendencies for self-destruction, and where emotion fits into an increasingly impersonal world.
There is a lot going on in this movie, and David Cronenberg presents some very fascinating observations and arguments from a plethora of angles. However, this emphasis on thematic depth meant a great deal of sacrifices in terms of plot and character development. That’s another reason why this film is so hard to write about: It isn’t built like an ordinary film.
The movie doesn’t have a standard narrative, structured with a beginning, middle, and end. The movie does have a protagonist (Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson), but he doesn’t have anything in particular to accomplish, much less any motivation for doing so. He does get something of a development arc, with his gradual self-manufactured downfall, though it’s not exactly clear why Eric is destroying himself or even if he knows he’s doing it.
Maybe Eric is destroying himself because he’s an immensely successful asset manager who, at the ripe old age of 28, can’t build himself up any bigger. Maybe he’s burning his image down to build himself into something else. Maybe Eric has become so jaded that it takes such an extreme level of emotional pain for him to feel anything. All of these are presented as possible motivations, but it’s never entirely clear what the real answer is.
Then there’s the matter of how nonchalant Eric is about the fact that he’s throwing his fortune away. You might think it impossible that a man could be oblivious to his own suicide, but I think that’s part of the point. It’s vital to note that most of the movie takes place inside Eric’s luxurious limo/mobile office. He’s surrounded by pretty lights, posh seats, an open bar, windows that go opaque at the touch of a button, and all the best telecommunications equipment that money can buy. And outside the limo, we hear that the president (yes, of the United States) is in the city, anarchist protests are everywhere, a foreign minister was grievously wounded in an assassination attempt, and there are threats on Eric’s life.
There are tons of huge and horrific events going on in the world, but Eric is in such an insulated bubble that he can only barely see them. Even when there’s nothing but a thin pane of plastic between Eric and deranged acts of violence, Eric simply continues to go about his business. In point of fact, Eric is so caught up in himself that the death of his favorite rapper elicits a greater emotional response than the sight of a foreign minister getting his eyeball gouged out.
There are other characters in this film, but they barely deserve to be called as such. Most of them represent ideas more than people, with only one scene apiece to talk philosophy and psychology with Eric. I had no idea how most of these people knew Eric, and I couldn’t recall their names if I tried.
However, there were a few notable characters here and there. Kevin Durand is suitably imposing as Eric’s right-hand chief of security. George Touliatos brings a welcome bit of warmth as Eric’s barber, and Matheieu Amalric gives a brief yet memorable performance as a possibly insane anarchist/performance artist.
Still, the best actor in this cast is easily Paul Giamatti. He doesn’t get any noteworthy screentime until the climax, but brother, he makes the climax soar. After an entire movie of sterile environments and emotionless characters in fancy attire, it was really something to watch this broken-down old man living in a filthy hovel, bitter at the world around him. It’s an amazing thing to watch Giamatti’s character and Eric try to psychoanalyze each other, especially when they both have guns in their hands. If ever there was any doubt of Giamatti’s extraordinary acting ability, this sequence should erase it completely.
Conversely, there’s the matter of Sarah Gadon. She plays Elise Shifrin, Eric’s wife of only a few weeks. She comes from a wealthy family, though Elise herself is a simple poet by trade. The relationship between the two characters is interesting, since it lets us watch Eric’s futile attempts to act as a normal human being. Whether he’s doing this to build a loving relationship with his new wife or because he’s trying to talk her into bed, that’s your call. Personally, given that he always turns their conversations back to sex and constantly has extramarital affairs, I’d lean toward the latter. Of course, this leads to the question of whether Eric wants sex for the sake of physical pleasure or if it’s a power trip of some kind. Again, you be the judge.
Anyway, Elise is far less interesting as a character in herself. The character appears to be every bit as neutral and void of emotion in her mannerisms, even when she knows that Eric is lying about his liaisons. Considering that the character is supposed to be a poet, I find it strange that Elise was presented with so little life or development. Then again, if the goal was to make her a female mirror of Eric, then mission accomplished.
Regarding Robert Pattinson, I can’t say I’ve seen any of his prior films. I defer any Twilight experience to my sister, who once said that Pattinson “looks like a rock and acts like one, too.” After seeing this film, I’m afraid I must concur. Then again, Eric is supposed to be a handsome young man who’s emotionally dead inside, and Pattinson can play that better than most. I must also point out that I was genuinely curious about the inner workings of Eric’s mind. He’s a compelling character, though I’m not sure if that credit is due to Cronenberg or Pattinson. I’m okay with it either way.
At this point, it might sound like the movie is totally boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, the film is only 109 minutes long, so the movie doesn’t outstay its welcome. Secondly, I genuinely wanted to know what was going to happen next with these characters. Not because I sympathized with the characters, mind you, but because I wanted to know what they were going to do or say next. I wanted to know how their actions would play out and what Cronenberg would say through them.
Every character in this film represents a different viewpoint. None of them talk remotely like normal human beings would, but it’s still fascinating to hear their thoughts and discussions. Pretty much everything about these characters is symbolic of something in a way, and trying to break down the various metaphors can keep a thinking moviegoer entertained for long after the credits have rolled. For God’s sake, even Eric’s prostate is a symbol, used to make a handful of surprising and cleverly presented thematic points.
Probably my favorite symbol in the movie is in how the film uses rats. The movie frequently alludes to a poem (indeed, the film opens by quoting it) called “Report from the Besieged City” by Zbignew Herbert. Specifically, the quotation is “a rat became the unit of currency.” As such, rats are used in ways both large and small to represent Eric and those like him. It’s most often used in a derogatory way, particularly when the anarchists adopt the rat as their favored symbol — but there are some more subtle uses of it in a foreboding way as well.
This brings me to the main reason why I enjoyed watching this film: Its construction is so damned good. The visuals are superb, with gorgeous construction design and shots that are expertly composited in some very clever ways. Moreover, the editing is top-notch. This is a movie that knows exactly when to hold for a lengthy shot and when to cut away. Indeed, some of the film’s most effective moments — both for thematic relevance and emotional punch — come from well-timed cuts and cliffhangers. Last but not least, Howard Shore contributes a score that’s wonderfully effective in a minimalist kind of way.
All told, Cosmopolis was a beautiful mindfuck. There is so much going on in this film thematically that I’d need multiple viewings just to sort through them all. Yes, the film’s plot is borderline non-existent and the characters don’t remotely resemble normal human beings, but that seems less like a bug and more like a feature. The film is still wonderfully made, smartly written, and visually beautiful, with a handful of solid performances to boot.
If anyone out there wants to know what a true piece of cinematic art looks like, I’d say this is a good example.