More Erotic When It's Wasted
by RACHEL SYKES
dir. David Cronenberg
In the opening shot of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson stands downcast outside a Manhattan office block. Dressed in black, or so the old joke goes, the most famous vampire in the hemisphere slouches beside a skyscraper, innocuous, glum and keeping to the shadows.
Sunglasses cover his eyes. “I need a haircut,” he says.
Cronenberg’s film, adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, follows a day in the life of Eric Packer (Pattinson), a billionaire who at the age of 27 wants nothing more than to have his hair done. Though he might click his fingers and have a solution provided, Packer is looking for something. On this particular day, he demands a barber shop with mirrors and a swivel chair, a place where he can sit and look at the reflection which he has stopped seeing amongst the glaze of his skyscraper and the sheen of his limousine.
“Where is your office? What do you do exactly?” Packer’s wife asks.
But as he rides around Manhattan in a car proofed against nuclear war, it becomes clear that Packer exists in the ultimate hyper-real. Computers have replaced the walls around him, providing constant code without information. And on these computers Packer can watch as his net worth decreases, second by second, and he gradually sabotages his personal wealth. His financial decline neatly parallels the protests visible through the blacked out windows of the limo. These are marches against globalisation, against the future, protesters who damage the protagonist’s vehicle but never pass through the glass. As it becomes increasing clear, the 1% which Packer, which Pattinson, embodies can only be destroyed by itself.
Any satisfaction garnered from watching Cosmopolis will depend on your ease with Pattinson’s automaton billionaire. An early poster released before its premiere at Cannes showed a glittering overview of the New York skyline fading to black under the tagline: “How far can he go before he goes too far?” But by the time the poster was released to cinemas, ambiguity had been sacrificed for the solemn face of its star, a face which for this moment is potentially as global as the New York skyline itself, sitting alone in a dilapidated version of his limousine. A yellow cab is still visible through the window over his right shoulder, the protests just apparent over his left. But directing attention consistently to the centre of the poster are the names, in capital letters, of the Trinity: PATTINSON, CRONENBERG, DELILLO.
A hyper-awareness of name and stature, the star, the director, the author, seems fitting for a film obsessed with transience, youth, and power. Over the course of 100 minutes a string of associates and/or lovers pass around or through Packer’s car, all emitting a specific, loaded language which stings with its twin obtuseness and directness.
“You smell of sex,” Packer’s wife says to him, when he discovers her hiding in a book store.
“It’s not the sex you think I’ve had,” he replies. “It’s the sex I want. That’s what you smell on me.”
A wearying sense runs through Cosmopolis that sexuality has festered, that intimacy is a fallacy. These supporting characters prove to be only cameos in the death throes of the protagonist, each with neat taglines which seem to be rejected from their mouths. “Destroy the past,” one adviser says, “make the future.” And as Packer sabotages his own life, we witness each character fade to irrelevance, their speech becoming ever more obscure and verging wildly between the bizarre and the ridiculous.
It is this language, directly lifted from DeLillo’s text, which fills the film and moulds its silences. The most palpable reaction in the cinema in which I sat was that of suppressed laughter. Several people scoffed as one protestor ranted about shoving custard pies in the faces of the famous. But full belly laughs emerged as Paul Giamatti, a beige dressing gown obscuring his face, announced that the fungus between his toes has begun to speak to him. In this climactic scene, shot in one take, and intended as two-handed theatre, the problem of Cosmopolis’ dysfunctional language crystallises. This is not the dialogue of Harold Pinter; this was not written to be said out loud.
And there the ultimate futility reverberates, not in the story, not in the characters, but in language itself. To DeLillo, sex dominates with equal ineffectuality, the creator and the destructor of everything in the individual. It permeates the dialogue – it is powerful, omniscient, it appears in the life of Packer both as therapist and stalker.
“Sex finds us,” Packer says, “Sex sees through us. That's why it's so shattering. It strips us of appearances.”
His virility, his mortality, is tested in one scene which details Packer’s daily health check. Bent over in the middle of his limousine for his prostate examination, the doctor announces that his prostate is asymmetrical. From this position, bent double, with it not immediately clear what is happening to him behind, he yells in the face of an adviser: “I want to bottle-fuck you slowly with my sunglasses on.”
More giggles ripple around the theatre. Because faced onscreen with the full absurdity of postmodernism, this much we are forced to understand: sex is disconnected - sex is irrelevant – sex is death. In the face of this, we laugh. Depictions of the sex acts themselves focus on the female form as it writhes on top of the young billionaire. His most intimate moments are with strangers or professionals. The woman, on top, obscures the form of the man below, who seems ultimately powerless to react or resist, and equally powerless to enjoy. And in the face of this, we laugh.
Of course, this is also like the experience of reading Don DeLillo. Especially in his most recent novels, DeLillo can be supremely frustrating when his portrayal of privilege relies too frequently on the obvious to imply its disjointed undertones. “Sex was everywhere,” he wrote in Falling Man, “This was sex. They’d walk down a street together and see themselves in a dusty window. A flight of stairs was sex.” Particularly when a world is in turmoil, DeLillo seeps sexuality into every aspect of the present and beats the reader over the head with its permeation. As a reader, I laughed, again, at this description which bludgeoned a frenetic moment with predictable overstatement. But I thought of Falling Man again, as Pattinson left the barbershop with only half a haircut, and as the few viewers in the cinema around me laughed without sympathy at an asymmetrical prostate.
A cardboard cut-out of Pattinson stood in the foyer of a small, independent theatre which I walked through one Wednesday night in June. His downcast face stared aggressively at the floor, whilst words sprawled over the cardboard boasted Cosmopolis to be “The first adaptation of a DeLillo novel.”
I sent a message to a friend: “This is the First. And soon there’ll be Falling Man. Russell Crowe will star.”
The reply quickly came: “Sex was everywhere. This was sex. The porch seat was sex. Sex will be everywhere… for Russell Crowe.”
Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the longest bunting. She tumbls here.
"Heart of Stone" - The Novel Ideas (mp3)
"Not Enough" - The Novel Ideas (mp3)
The latest album from The Novel Ideas is entitled Home, and you can find their website here.