Billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) reels slowly through New York City in a white limousine to get a haircut. He takes his meetings and appointments in the limo and gambles the world’s assets from its cybernetic upholstery. From the vehicle’s sleek quietude – practically a spacecraft – Packer is a removed voyeur of the city outside. He can adjust the windows and turn them off like a television. The population of New York, on the brink of a potentially dire insurgency, is reduced to reflection, not living but stagnated in constant, meaningless anarchy – like war in a distant region of the planet. He leaves the car to spend time with his wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), who he finds at plays or in a bookstore. While she tries to connect with literature, she is unable to recite anything for her husband, finding solace in the idea of art, or the physicality of books, but no real affinity for creation itself.
The revolt against Packer manifests in three forms. The first is a semi-violent protest of countless anarchists with a rat idol but, although replete with suicide, it is unable to penetrate his limousine. The second is that of art, in a bizarre scene of humiliation by a renegade pastry chef. It is a more memorable effort but the vandal’s desperate need to preserve and reproduce his one idea is unimpressive. Finally, there is the threat of assassination by an individual (Paul Giamatti) but it is merely the last cry of the lonely vengeful psychopath who wants nothing but to be noticed, his name remembered – but we never knew his name in the first place.
David Cronenberg has not independently authored a screenplay since Crash, and here with Cosmopolis, he retires the same theology of man and machine that he has so uniquely made his life’s work. Few directors could ever claim such transcendence. In Crash, previously the peak of Cronenberg’s artistic machinations, his characters are sustained by a sexual energy that can be harnessed through involvement in car accidents. Packer, however, is unmoved by the extremes of physical or sexual experience. He is unable to experience – as all knowledge is secondhand – his (our) world is devoid of new feeling or original thought.
Cosmopolis is revolutionary, even if it implies the futility of revolution. Capitalism is referred to as a “spectre” as it cannot be admonished with the reprimand of its benefactors. The phrase “a spectre haunts this world, the spectre of capitalism” is, in itself, a projection but it suggests something less ephemeral; it is that which can be digitised, mobilised, and gentrified – it is actually man’s artifice of eternity. Although promoted as an odyssey of war, violence and sex, the film’s terror is in its inactivity, it’s unresponsive, unflinching inertness. It is surely 2012’s apocalyptic masterpiece.
Cosmopolis will be in Australian cinemas from Thursday 2 August through Icon Films