Director: David Cronenberg
Premise: Twenty-something billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) needs a haircut. On the way to his barber, he meets with several business associates in his high-tech stretch limo, where they discuss different philosophies through the lens of capitalism. As the day goes on, Eric’s fortune begins to crumble.
It’s hard to imagine the type of person that Cosmopolis was made for. I don’t think “entertainment value” or “personal investment” or “caring about the characters” are the best lenses to apply to art, but they’re interesting jumping-off points here. This film is esoteric to a fault, taking every possible measure to alienate its audience. The dialogue is reminiscent of surrealism, full of non-sequiturs and sudden digressions, but the filmmaking is more clinical, focused entirely on visual clarity and balance within the frame. This film wants nothing more than to keep you out, and that’s why you need to watch it.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a good chance you’ll absolutely despise Cosmopolis, but that doesn’t matter. This film’s impenetrability offers a unique viewing experience. Its approaches to structure and character are so abstract that you’re forced to think differently to process them. Thinking about this film’s dialogue in a traditional way would be maddening; none of the conversations have a comprehensible flow, and the speech of every character falls into the uncanny valley. At first this seems like Buñuel-esque satire, showing the pseudo-intellectual and self-congratulatory language of the American elite, but eventually it’s revealed that everyone talks this way regardless of social status. You might think it’s a Bret Easton Ellis-like exploration of the emotional hollowness of privileged people, but Eric doesn’t seem distraught over his inability to feel. Watching Cosmopolis is like trying to swat a fly — just when you think you’ve pinned it down, it darts away.
This isn’t an expressive film either, and feel free to make a Robert Pattinson joke here if you must. These characters exist completely in their own heads; they’re intensely cerebral but emotionally vapid. At one point, Eric’s doctor tells him that he will allow an injury on his side to “express itself” rather than take action to heal it. “What, do nothing?” Eric responds. The doctor repeats himself, driving this point home. Expression is something to be stomped out. It’s the practical thing to do. The characters of Cosmopolis are cold and distant automatons, and the film never lets you into their world. It’s like going to a dinner party full of people you don’t know, a social activity turned into a challenge. Cosmopolis isn’t singular in this regard, but its refusal to give its audience even a single piece of information to work from is fascinating.
It’s hard to make Cosmopolis sound appealing, and that’s honestly because it isn’t. There’s not a lot to be gained from the film proper, but watching it offers a kind of meta-watch experience that few other films replicate. You can’t be “immersed” in this film, and it works hard to make sure that you don’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s not mentally engaging. Cosmopolis isn’t a film for everyone, and it’s probably not a film for anyone. Watch it anyway. Watching films you don’t like can be an enriching experience, and this one is aggressively unlikeable. Thinking about movies in a new way is never a bad thing.