Mind trip

Although vilified by many critics, David Cronenberg's latest is not without merit

Eric Packer is a brilliant currency trader, played with scowls and smirks by Robert Pattinson. In David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, adapted from Don DeLillo's novel of the same name, Eric, in pursuit of the plummeting yuan (it's yen in the book) and a haircut, rides across Manhattan in his dazzlingly white stretch limo, long as a coffin, noiseless as the interior of a whale. The world is crumbling around him; the anarchists are parading a huge rat statue around and a Time Square screen summons up Marx. It's a protest against the future, says one character. On TV, the IMF chief is seen being stabbed in the eye by an attacker in North Korea.

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis .

Encircled by bodyguards, Eric receives a warning that someone out there is planning to murder him. Slowly, with cerebral intellectualism that's likely to frustrate many, the film turns into a day in the life of a man consumed by the spectre of apocalypse and self-destruction. The haircut, obviously, is an excuse. Eric, so rich that wealth has become a mere abstraction, is incapable of making human contact, and now he just wants to go home. But where _ because he prefers to inhabit the belly of his surreally large vehicle _ is home, exactly?

DeLillo wrote Cosmopolis in 2003. He told a press conference in Cannes in May, where the movie premiered, that the image of super-long stretch limousines prowling the streets of Manhattan was what inspired him to write the story.

But now, with the film coming out, the novel has suddenly acquired a prophetic quality, as economic malaise brings developed nations to their knees and blood-sucking capitalism _ which Eric seems to personify so well _ is once again the villain-in-chief.

It's not that simple, though, for DeLillo's experiment, his conjecturing about the mental state of his so clever and yet so self-absorbed lead character, follows the literary tradition of Joyce and Malcolm Lowry (among others). Cronenberg's adaptation both draws strengths from, and confronts limitations in, DeLillo's strategy.

Cronenberg's film lifts huge chunks of dialogue from the novel, the barbed, consciously pretentious exchanges between Eric and various assistants who take turns sitting in his limo. When it works, it's startling, but when the words coming out of someone's mouth shed the literary quality they possessed in the book, the tactic is wrought with histrionics. "Life is too contemporary," says Eric's art dealer, played here by slinking Juliette Binoche, conspicuously having a great time in the back of that supercar. "Your prostate is asymmetrical," says his doctor, after getting on board and sticking his hand up Eric's ass. Symmetry, as it turns out, is Eric's obsession and downfall.

But it is Samantha Morton, playing Eric's "Chief of Theory", who is most accomplished at delivering her grand lines without batting an eyelid; her character alone will probably be sufficient to drive people who haven't read the book to go find a copy (my sympathies to whoever was responsible for the film's Thai subtitles: DeLillo's prose is not just about content, it's about attitude, and that's non-translatable). The flaw in human rationality, Morton's character says, "is that it pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it built". When she sees a man self-immolating as part of a nasty protest that explodes around the limo, she says, nonchalantly: "It's not original."

Cronenberg's dispassionate objectivity, Pattinson's blank glare and the overload of self-consciousness might turn off many viewers; this film was a hate object for a whole bunch of critics. But the director of Spider, Crash, A History Of Violence and A Dangerous Method _ to name just some films of his that deal with men and women locked up in their own heads _ is at his deftest in transforming DeLillo's text into visuals when he interiorises Eric's state of mind.

A large portion of Eric's contact with other human beings takes place in his cavernous vehicle. The limo is an insulated space, a controlled environment in which a man who thinks he has the world in the palm of his hand receives visits, grants audiences. Eric lives in his own head; the car is an extension of himself, it shuts out the world, reducing it to a blur. But it is also his prison.

Anyone who undertakes the cinematic rendition of a difficult book runs a gamut of risks. Cosmopolis is not a Cronenberg work many people will remember a few years from now, but it'd be wrong to say it is without merits. Over and above its topical urgency or the bit about the misfortune of globalism, it does what this director has always done in his films: split open the head of a character, plunge inside and try to visualise the bad and the ugly things to be found there. Still, there's only one way to really know Eric inside out. Read the book.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist