You wait five years for a Cronenberg film, then two of them turn up at once. Typical. This week sees the DVD release of his wordy psychological drama A Dangerous Method, whilst on the big screen his latest work Cosmopolis is weirding-out the unsuspecting public up and down the country. The film is a deliciously cool piece of not-quite-sci-fi, taking place in what feels like a heightened version of the world we live in now, as business tycoon Eric (Robert Pattinson) travels across New York in his stretch limousine to get a haircut he doesn’t need. Along the way he encounters a variety of different people, learns his life is in danger from an unknown assailant, and slowly begins to unravel from his cocoon of comfort.
Not to over generalise a man’s oeuvre, but Cronenberg films usually fit into one of two categories; his stately, precise literary adaptations, and the more gonzo, body-horror minded surreal sci-fi odysseys. From the trailer Cosmopolis looked like a fully-fledged return to the latter category – one he hasn’t fully broached since 1999’s eXistenZ. Viewers may be surprised to discover that in fact Cosmopolis sits firmly in the former, and is an even wordier and more precise piece of work than A Dangerous Method earlier this year. In fact with the limousine acting as the focal point of much of the film’s content, this is the Cronenberg film that feels more like a stage play that has somehow oozed onto the screen instead of a literary piece.
It may also be his strangest work since Naked Lunch, the film of his that it most resembles. The two are both cerebral meals in which the lead character wilfully gets lost in a carnival of the grotesque. Eric’s decision to cross town for an unnecessary haircut initially seems purposefully nonsensical, but as the journey progresses, diverted by a presidential motorcade and weathering a rabid political protest, it becomes clear that Eric is bored.
Bored with his anaemic, successful lifestyle. He tells advisers in a blasé manner that he is losing millions over the course of the day. He near begs for sexual expression from his chilly, detached wife (Sarah Gadon) – a relationship which aborts itself over the course of three meals. Slowly but surely, Eric comes to the realisation that he is after something tangible, even if it means confronting his own destruction. His connection to the limousine is not immaterial. It is sound-proofed, isolating him from the outside world, sleek and pristine. By midway through it is daubed with graffiti. By the end it is abandoned altogether. Eric’s progression follows a similar route, as he peels away his protective layers.
The film is Cronenbergian in all facets. Familiar fascinations recur – sex, vehicles, sex and vehicles – as well as some of the most deliciously strange images you’ll see all year. Are Twilight fans turning up expecting to see Robert Pattinson take a piss into a sunken toilet in the floor of a limousine, or for that matter, receive a prostate exam in the film’s most strangely sensual scene? Probably not. There is also a curious fascination with time – people frequently ask each other their ages with seriousness. The idea of time as a palpable, bankable commodity. That a person’s worth can be gauged by their age. One of many ideas swirling around in a film about ideas.
Cosmopolis structures a series of debates and discussions around its narrative, and if you’re not prepared for it, it may well be overwhelming. When Samantha Morton steps into the limousine, the material gets incredibly dense. As a friend remarked, like that bit in The Matrix Reloaded when the Architect turned up and suddenly everyone’s playing catch-up. What was that bit again??
I imagine a lot of people who see Cosmopolis will be liable to complain that it is pretentious, but this is not the case. This film is fiercely intelligent, gorged with ideas, overstuffed even. Like David Cronenberg, it is at times intimidatingly literate. It won’t wait for you to catch up, and will no doubt reveal further with repeated viewings. The dialogue can sound arch in the mouths of its at-times arbitrary characters, as though they are but flapping mouths for the talking points, but the overall effect of the film is entirely satisfying. Cosmopolis is dark, erotic and gives you plenty of food for thought.