Is there any living director who’s had a weirder career trajectory than David Cronenberg?
After carving out a very specific niche as a low-budget horror director fixated on technology and the body (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), he moved on to bigger, more sci-fi oriented projects that maintained this focus (Videodrome, The Fly). This period peaked with austere, highly mannered treatments of the same fixations, but which abandoned all the earlier viscera in favor of mind games and looming dread and meta-critique, with the occasional body-related freak-out (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash).
And then … an entirely different variety of film. Since 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg movies have maintained the sleek production of Crash, but without all the body stuff, or at least not overtly. Both that film and 2007’s Eastern Promises were genre excursions, and A Dangerous Method was a moderately perverted period piece, a sort of Canadian Merchant Ivory production with more spanking (and considerably more Keira Knightley flopping around). It touched on what you could call Cronenbergian motifs, but seemed a world away from Videodrome, much less The Brood.
So this is where Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s adaptation of a Don Delillo short story, arrives on the scene.
Twilight’s Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, a terminally disinterested and megarich financier, and full-time terrible human being, who is traveling across town in his limo to get a haircut. Various people arrive to brief and/or fuck him. Anarchists spraypaint his car as he sits in interminable traffic. He gets his daily (daily!) physical in the back of the limo, complete with prostate exam. As in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the impossibly large space in the car delineates inside and out. But while in Carax’s vision the two worlds exist in weird and maybe inextricable harmony, in Cronenberg and Delillo’s scenario, they are bound to collide violently. The limo is a protective fortress, and as Packer is driven through the city, it’s clear the walls aren’t going to hold much longer.
Cronenberg’s fixation on cars is a thing to consider – as in Crash, the camera both eroticizes the sharp metal angles and imbues them with anxiety. (The Fly also expresses deep ambivalence: Seth Brundle’s whole goal is to eradicate the need for physical transport.) Being inside the limo is clearly “safer,” but, in its claustrophobia and increasing vulnerability, also seems like a threat. Technology intimidates, with its seductive aspects and its promises to streamline human interaction to their most logical structures. But the same machine that takes you across town for a nostalgic visit to a specific barber also cuts you off from authentic engagement with people along the way, and maybe puts you at more risk than you already were.
Pattinson’s casting is amusing on a number of levels – he continues to play a vampire of sorts, and, even now that his libido has been released from the confines of tween cinema, he takes no joy in it. He’s not exactly “good” so much as he is “Robert Pattinson, the guy from Twilight.” Which is good enough.
So what does this have to do with Croenenberg’s earlier work or what it means moving forward? I honestly don’t know (and haven’t seen Map To The Stars, his newest film). There seem to be two David Cronenbergs, with only occasional overlap. In any case, I won’t go so far as David Ehrlich, but in Cosmopolis, one of those Cronenbergs made a pretty good movie.