Hyperallergic writers and siblings Brendan and Marisa Carroll recently attended a screening of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis at Walter Reade Theater in New York, which was followed by a Q-and-A session with the director. Here they review the film and tease out the artistic influences that inform Cronenberg’s sinister urban dreamscape.
Adapted by David Cronenberg from Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name, Cosmopolis takes place over the course of one day in New York. Billionaire hedge-fund manager Eric Packer informs the head of his security team that he would like to travel crosstown amidst a snarl of traffic to get a haircut. From his fully equipped white stretch limousine, he receives a number of visitors (including advisors, lovers and his personal physician) during his trip, stepping out occasionally to converse with his wife, whom he randomly spots in the city streets. All the while, he is being targeted for assassination by a credible but unidentified threat as the city erupts in protests.
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Marisa: So has the movie stayed with you since we went to see it?
Brendan: Yes — not so much the story, but the way the movie looked and felt. Regarding the visual style of the film, the movie was nearly flawless. The placement of the characters within any given frame was as unusual as it was fascinating. The actors reminded me of jigsaw-puzzle pieces. One of the first shots, an extreme close-up of the limo grill, had the force of a blunt object.
Marisa: I can’t remember the last movie I’ve seen that included so many close-ups. There was rarely a shot that was filmed from farther than medium distance. The movie felt very claustrophobic to me for that reason.
Brendan: Yeah, if someone asked me what it feels like to watch Cosmopolis in the theater, I’d tell him to picture the person you most despise on the hottest day of the summer. Now, picture him in his underwear — snug jockey shorts. To watch this film is to feel like those briefs, which cling so snugly to this guy’s sweaty balls. There is no escape between fabric and skin.
Marisa: That’s a unique way to describe it!
Brendan: That being said, I enjoyed the film.
Marisa: I did, too … I think. I finished DeLillo’s book about a week before we watched the movie, which was a mistake. I couldn’t shut off the “compare and contrast” mode in my mind — shuttling back and forth between how I remembered the book depicting events and how they were unfolding onscreen — which may have gotten in the way of me seeing the film in its own right.
In the Q-and-A session after the film, [director David] Cronenberg said he wanted to keep the audience in line with Eric’s perspective the entire time, so we remain with him in the confines of the limo for large stretches of screen time. It created a suffocating mood, which I didn’t feel as I was reading the book.
Brendan: Two hours in a limo with Robert Pattison — every Twilight fan’s dream. I tend to think Cronenberg wanted us to experience the prison that Eric, this remote billionaire, had created for himself. Eric is like a caged lion in the zoo, an exotic fish in an aquarium, or an endangered tropical plant in a terrarium.
Marisa: The aquarium analogy seems the most apt to me, both in terms of the film’s visuals and soundtrack. All those deep blue and black tones — he might as well be skimming the bottom of the ocean floor. At times, it feels as if he’s in deep space. We learn that Eric has had his limousine soundproofed with cork, or “Prousted,” so all we hear is dialogue — there is no ambient sound within the car, rarely any music, no sounds from the streets outside. It has a surreal, almost alien quality. With his great wealth and privilege, Eric is not of this world anymore, at least in the beginning of the film.
Brendan: That we rarely see characters entering or leaving the limousine enriched that surreal effect. People seemed to just materialize.
I usually take notes during a film that I intend to review. To my surprise, I wrote no notes down as the film unfolded, but I did make sketches (or doodles) of some scenes to map out the characters in any given frame. I do not know if I bypassed the note-taking in favor of sketches because I took the story for granted, having read the book twice.
Marisa: I remember you saying after we saw the movie that in almost every shot, the characters were configured as either pairs or triangles. Was it your sketches that led you to that?
Brendan: Yes. When I’m looking at a painting or drawing, I will often copy the work in a sketchbook to get a better understanding of how it works. I have a bunch of sketchbooks in which I copied Goya’s caprichios and Disasters of War prints. This is what I did with Cosmopolis: I copied the scenes as if I were copying a painting or print by an artist.
Brendan: I am out of practice, and it was hard for me to sketch out scenes in the dark, but in doing this, I began to get a better visual understanding of what was being constructed onscreen.
Marisa: It’s odd to me that a movie blocked in this way (to highlight relationships between pairs or trios of characters) did not foster any sense of intimacy. It was so cold.
Brendan: I disagree. To me, the movie is intimate, but the intimacy is forced — like Eric’s six-minute-long prostate exam that takes place inside the limo. Forced intimacy is unnerving.
Marisa: To put it mildly.
Brendan: Cronenberg makes us share the same space as a monomaniacal narcissist. Each shot is crafted in such a way to thrust the audience into Eric’s self-contained bubble. This is not pleasant viewing, but it is engaging.
Marisa: One of the running jokes of the book and the movie is Eric’s repeated efforts to seduce his new wife, Elise, to no avail. But if I attempt to picture them together, all I can imagine is two statues rubbing against one another. If there were any sparks, they would come from friction, not sexual chemistry! With the hyper-stylized dialogue and the actors’ nearly affectless delivery, they don’t seem human.
Brendan: As a long-time reader of DeLillo, it was strange to hear his dialogue spoken aloud. I never laughed during the movie, but the rest of the audience did. I have never considered DeLillo to be a comedic writer until Cronenberg said that he was funny.
Marisa: When I was reading a book, some of the scenarios were so absurd or outrageous that I did laugh. But back to the earlier point, I suppose the film didn’t feel intimate to me because the characters never connect with each other. They might as well be abstract shapes on a blank screen. They don’t connect with the audience either, at least not with me.
Brendan: No characters, apart from the theorist Vija Kinsky and disgruntled former employee Benno Levin, seemed to have blood in their veins. Eric, Elise, Torval [his chief of security] — they all seemed like porcelain statues, or vampires.
I love your association about the characters being abstract shapes on a blank screen, though. I swear to God, Cronenberg’s compositions looked like geometric abstractions, or Russian constructivist canvases. I was reminded of Kazimir Malevich.
Marisa: Well, Eric treats other people like things; they may as well be circles and triangles he manipulates inside a square plane. So perhaps the look of the movie reflects how Eric sees people, the world.
Brendan: Yes! Everyone is an object to be manipulated or consumed. Is this a comment on capitalism? How it reduces people to boxes?
Marisa: A case could be made! As for the character, Eric is so distant through most of the film. He seems to have lost contact with his own humanity — he seeks extreme sensation as a way to feel anything. But we do see him express a flash of emotion during the funeral procession when he sees the body laid out in a coffin.
Brendan: Don’t you think that was just a gesture?
Marisa: Or just another example of a person reduced to a box?
Brendan: His view from the car window reduces the entire city of New York to boxes or rectangles. (I loved how the window opened and closed like a theater curtain to reveal the action outside the limo in the street.) The more I think about it, the more I see boxes everywhere. The Rothko painting that closes the film is a series of boxes … rectangles floating within rectangles.
Marisa: Right! Cronenberg starts the film with close-ups of a splatter painting and ends with a Rothko. It suggests a trajectory from chaos to order, but that certainly isn’t Eric’s journey over the course of the day.
Brendan: At the start of the film, Eric and his white limousine are pristine, perfect. But after a day of street protests, the limo is covered with graffiti, spattered in paint like a Pollock painting. Eric’s appearance also degrades over the duration of the film. He is beaten and bruised, half his hair is chopped off, he is covered in pie.
Marisa: Ha, that’s right — he unwittingly becomes the canvas for a guerilla performance artist on one of his few trips outside of the car. He becomes a walking painting.
Brendan: I was wondering what the connections are between Pollock and Rothko as they relate to the characters and the film’s visuals. Pollock and Rothko are both post-war abstractionists, titans of the New York School. This was the USA in its heyday. Now, we’re past our prime, and Pollock and Rothko are part of history, of the Old World.
Marisa: Great insight! Given the economic crisis of the last few years, DeLillo’s book, which was written in 2003, seems especially prescient. I buy your argument that by evoking the work of these particular artists, Cronenberg is using art history (or artistic vocabulary?) as a uniquely visual way to point to an empire in decline.
I also wonder if Pollock and Rothko were selected for foreshadowing purposes. Pollock was killed in a car crash; Rothko died by his own hand. Eric seems poised between these two ends — riding around in his limo under threat of attack, while engaging in increasingly self-harming behaviors as the day rolls on.
Brendan: Good point. As to your question about the chaotic nature of splatter paintings, when I think of Pollock’s works, I feel their size, ambition and grandiosity. At first, the paint spatters seem without reason. But the longer you look, the more that patterns and rhythms begin to emerge.
Marisa: And that’s what Eric is hoping to do with the economic data running on all the screens in his limo: to detect patterns that no one else can see — patterns he can hedge his bets on.
Brendan: Now Rothko, I’ve always had a hard time with his work. Those amorphous rectangles floating in mists of color are hard to pin down. I find myself wanting to get a hold of those forms. I can’t and I get restless. Maybe that’s the point.
Speaking of Rothko, at one point, Eric says that he’d like to buy the Rothko Chapel, which was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in 1971 in Houston, to install in his apartment.
Marisa: He wants to pin down Rothko just like you do.
Brendan: According to the chapel’s website:
“The mission of the Rothko Chapel is to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture the reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.”
Each year 60,000 people visit that chapel, and Eric wants to own it and claim the sanctuary as his own.
Marisa: Before reading the book, I hadn’t heard of the Rothko Chapel. When Eric talked about wanting to buy it, it seemed like just another example of his extravagance, like the $30 million plane he bought that’s now rusting in a hangar because he can’t find the parts to repair it. He buys these things because he can, and because everyone else can’t. The fruits of his wealth seem to bring him no joy, nor does he seem particularly attached to them.
Knowing now that the Rothko chapel was created as a public space of contemplation makes Eric’s quest seem unspeakably selfish. Even if he paid a billion dollars to get it, it would still seem as if he were stealing it.
Brendan: Eric can deny the humanity of others for only so long. His possible reckoning comes in the form of the Benno character in final act of the film. Benno, with his puffy face, high blood pressure and bulging eyes.
Marisa: Paul Giamatti was the perfect casting choice for that character, especially in contrast to pretty Pattinson as Eric. With the towel that he wears draped over his head, he seems like a quasi-religious figure, but his body is not an airbrushed fantasy. It’s fleshy and sweaty and slumped.
While there was tension in the 20-minute long conversation between Eric and Benno, their interaction in DeLillo’s book was far more suspenseful to me than in Cronenberg’s film. Part of that had to do with certain plot developments that Cronenberg decided to omit. During the Q-and-A session, he said that felt there was no way he could film those points without them seeming contrived or phony. I wish he had found a strategy, though. The film would have had more momentum.
Actually, the visual associations that you’ve pointed out in our conversation interest me more than the film itself. But I’d like to return to the movie after the book has faded from memory (which they seem to do more and more, I’m sad to say). Cleaner slate, fresher eyes. How about you? Will you be seeing Cosmopolis again? Or would you recommend it?
Brendan: Yes. Within the confines of a limousine, Cronenberg has managed to create a truly engaging cinematic experience.
David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is playing in theaters around the world.