Cosmopolis: a poetical and radical indictment of capitalism

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It has to be said that even among cinephiles who are used to small art cinemas, certain films provoke cruel prejudices. Going to see David Cronenberg’s  Cosmopolis, it’s easy to be assailed by negative feelings when you queue up for tickets. The title itself is a little off-putting: the direct reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis can raise doubts about Cronenberg’s modesty. Another pretentious film costing 20 million dollars and realised with the aid of dodgy loans? And already there have been some harsh words by the critics and audiences walking out en masse before the end of the movie. Even worse, some journalists have acted like verbose intellectuals without really understanding anything. And then the posters feature the film’s lead, Robert Pattinson, better known for his role as a teen-idol in vampire movies.

But what is Cosmopolis? First of all it’s a baroque scenario taken from a book of the same name. The billionaire Eric Packer has but one aim: to get to his hair-stylist! From inside his armoured limousine, on the long road that leads to this insignificant objective, capitalism can be seen collapsing, the population rises up, riots break out. At the beginning of the film, two people enter the café where the billionaire had stopped for a few minutes. Brandishing dead rats, who serve as a kind of imaginary money, they shout out the first lines of the 1848 Communist Manifesto: “a spectre is haunting the world”…the spectre of capitalism. But nothing seems to divert Packer from his absurd aim, even the abstract and mysterious threat hanging over him.

This film is more than a superficially radical critique of capitalism, which was fairly typical of a number of movies in the 70s, even though they were often very good films. Packer is more than a cynical billionaire, more than a diabolical trader; he is a symbol of capitalism itself. The key to grasping the film is there: like the characters of Carlos Saura in Ana y los lobos (Anna and the Wolves), who are illustrations of the social make-up of Francoist Spain, the characters of Cosmopolis are metaphors, incarnations which go beyond the individual strictly speaking. Packer meets up with his fiancée, an incarnation of the artistic milieu and a promulgator of theories; a doctor, full of the illusions and blindness of bourgeois experts for whom everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds; the body guard, an image of the repressive forces; an unemployed worker, a proletarian who struggles to become aware of his strength and the inconsistency of the flamboyant slogans of this world, “dead for a hundred years”, but on which he had staked so much hope: “I wanted you to save me!”.

While the film underestimates the role of the state in decadent capitalism, its author is nevertheless perfectly aware of the vanity of pseudo-revolt, of inoffensive and symbolic actions. An individual, who you think at first is the mysterious threat, arrives merely to throw a custard pie at Packer. Under the camera flashes that ensue, we see a totally simulated brawl. After a ridiculous speech, vaunting his meaningless feats, the pieman can only add pathetically: “right…I’ve gotta go”. Unlike these pseudo-historic gestures, the revolution, for Cronenberg, is a serious thing, a violent confrontation, a radical overturning of bourgeois society.

But the director seems aware of the limits of the exercise; how can you denounce a world in collapse with such a costly film, financed by some of those who have every interest in preserving the system? Through the intermediary of Packer’s fiancée, Cronenberg responds very honestly to this question. A very wealthy artist, she plays at being disinherited in a taxi or in shabby bars, and makes superficial criticisms of her lover. In the end, although she decides to publicly take her distance from him, making a show of breaking with him, she can only carry on secretly supporting capitalism. She thus crystallises all the contradictions of the exercise which, while being a vigorous criticism of capitalism, still has to obey its laws. This is an occasion for an interesting reflection on art under the reign of commerce.

So how do we explain the negative reaction of a large part of the public? First, the film is extremely dense. A bit like the work of Stanley Kubrick, Cronenberg doesn’t leave anything to chance. Although he bases the film on the work of Don DeLillo for the dialogue, each scene, each phrase, each image makes you think. Each detail is charged with meaning in a coherent whole. It’s true that you need to be carrying serious political luggage and several views to grasp all the elements of the film, since there are so many references to the workers’ movement and political literature and so many significant details. But it’s truly rare, given the price of tickets these days, for spectators to desert the cinema so massively and with such irritation, however bad a film may be. There is no doubt something more fundamental involved here. Many people have probably seen something that they are not used to seeing, or have experienced a kind of slap in the face. Cosmopolis is not a simple rigorous demonstration, which can be responded to with other arguments. While it is indeed a radical critique of capitalism, it is first and foremost a poetical one. The strength of great artists is to give their work an emotional dimension which penetrates the spirit and cuts through the cold mechanics of rationality. If such works make people run away or fill them with enthusiasm, if it grates on them or transports them, it’s because they are producing something which is complex and hard to explain: emotion.

El Generico 31/7/12