Behind the window

Behind the window

Novel adaptation

Behind the window

Inside a limousine lies a David Cronenberg’s world in ‘Cosmopolis’, a movie adapted from the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, writes Dennis lim

The social theorist Marshall McLuhan famously described media as “extensions of man.” The filmmaker David Cronenberg, a fellow Canadian, has made several movies that count as mind-bending elaborations of that insight.

Cronenberg’s latest film, Cosmopolis, takes place in a spectral world of global capital, digital information and virtual everything. Its currency-trading billionaire hero, cocooned in a white stretch limousine that serves as a second skin, deals and speaks in abstractions and is himself something of a hologram, an inscrutable young master of a conceptual universe. Cosmopolis follows the suave Eric Packer, played by Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson, on what proves to be a day of reckoning. Inching through Manhattan traffic for a haircut on the other side of town, he receives a succession of experts and analysts in his leather-upholstered sanctum, which doubles as a boardroom, a bedroom and even a doctor’s office. External distractions — a presidential motorcade, anti-capitalist demonstrations — appear through tinted windows and on touch screens. Everything happens and is experienced at a dreamlike remove. Eric’s bet against the Chinese yuan has turned disastrous, but he responds with eerie detachment, numbly contemplating the prospect of his economic and actual extinction.

Based on a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis merges the distinctive sensibilities of a filmmaker and a novelist who have both been called prophetic, a shorthand way of saying that both have their antennas up for the larger forces — language, technology, the collection of images and systems of knowledge — that shape our world and our sense of reality. Films and footage often play crucial roles in DeLillo’s books, but while several of his novels have been optioned for adaptation, until now all had stalled in development.
Cosmopolis is hardly obvious screen material on the page. But Cronenberg has located cinematic life in other novels that many would deem unfilmable, whether for being too bizarre (William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), too graphic (JG Ballard’s Crash) or too interior (Patrick McGrath’s Spider).

In an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where Cosmopolis had its premiere in May, Cronenberg spoke about his approach to adaptation. “You have to betray the book in order to be faithful to the book,” he said. “You have to recognise that literature is not cinema.”

But Cosmopolis, which some critics in Cannes faulted for being too static, is an almost perversely faithful rendition of the book. On the phone from Toronto recently, Cronenberg said that claustrophobia was very much the point. “I love the ascetic idea of so much happening within a limo,” he said. “I don’t find that it forces you into monotony. Quite the opposite, it forces you to be innovative.”

He looked at films that were restricted to cramped locations — the submarine-set Das Boot, and Lebanon, which unfolds inside an Israeli tank — and he even moved one scene, an encounter between Eric and his art dealer, from an apartment into the car. DeLillo, for one, might argue that there is something inherently cinematic about this contained structure. His one produced screenplay to date — for the 2005 indie Game 6 — is also about a character stuck in traffic, trying to get from point A to B. “A man on a horse crossing the screen from right to left, or left to right — there’s something about that that strikes me as the essence of American cinema,” DeLillo said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York. “In this case we have a man in a limousine who’s crossing the screen in a rather different way of course. But it’s that idea of a journey that will be resolved in the simplest and maybe the most violent possible way.”

The limo built for the film was a “Lego-like modular structure,” Cronenberg said. “It had to come apart for lighting, for sound, for camera.” In keeping with Eric’s stipulations that his car be “prousted” — lined with cork, à la Proust’s room, to shut out the din of the outside world. Not even the hum of the engine is audible.

This airless bubble is an oddly apt vessel for DeLillo’s heightened language, which Cronenberg transcribed almost verbatim. (He wrote the script in a mere six days.) “It’s very stylised,” Cronenberg said of DeLillo’s dialogue, “but it also taps into some inner rhythms of the American psyche.”

Dialogue dichotomy

Some reviewers were put off by the novel’s clipped cadences but Cronenberg embraced the artifice. “I can hear naturalistic dialogue any day on the street,” he said. “What I wanted was not just to hear this dialogue spoken but to see actors embody it. They bring it to life in a physical, corporeal way.”

Amid a revolving door of mostly female visitors played by the likes of Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton, the impassive constant is Pattinson. “I don’t think Rob’s face has ever been examined in such excruciating detail, from so many angles,” Cronenberg said. “That was part of the casting. You want a face that can take that.”

Pattinson acknowledged that the part was challenging. “The dialogue seemed to flow really easily,” he said. “But when you approach the character in a conventional way and try to figure out who he is, that becomes terrifying.” He added: “I kept trying to hold on to that element of not really understanding him. I think David liked the takes when I had literally no idea what I was doing.”

Even now the movie remains elusive for Pattinson, who said he had seen it four times: twice he was baffled (“It was impossible to crack”) and twice he connected with the dry absurdist comedy. “David just presents it as deadpan, and people don’t know whether to laugh or not,” he said.

Often considered a progenitor of body horror, Cronenberg has an underappreciated sense of humour. Cosmopolis highlights the mordant comedy of the source material. “People keep saying to me, ‘Do you ever think of doing a comedy?’ And I say, ‘Well, I’ve made tons of them,’ ” Cronenberg said. “You have much more freedom to be subtle and dark in a comedy that’s not being presented as a comedy.”

In some ways, Cosmopolis continues many themes from his previous movie, the Freud and Jung drama of ideas, A Dangerous Method. Eric’s journey could be thought of in Freudian terms: a death drive. Both these dialogue-heavy films also share a view of language as an instrument of power. In A Dangerous Method, language is being reshaped and terms being invented for phenomena that had not yet been recognised,” Cronenberg said. “There’s some of that also in Cosmopolis, where the terminology is a question of power.”

If Cosmopolis was greeted in some quarters as a post-Sept 11 novel, it now appears to have anticipated the recent financial crisis. “The world seems to have caught up with that book,” Cronenberg said, adding that the Occupy Wall Street movement was heating up as they were shooting the protest scenes. But he cautioned against making too much of the connections: “It’s certainly not mine or Don’s aspiration to be a prophet.”

Cronenberg’s apocalyptic film is perhaps best appreciated not for its topical links to the real world, but for giving form to the nightmares of our age. “I wanted to play Cosmopolis as absolutely real as you could,” Cronenberg said. “It’s a realism that’s disturbing because it’s so close to reality, and yet you know it’s not. I suppose at that point you’re talking about dream reality.” He added: “I’ve always thought that movies work in terms of dream logic. Even movies that present themselves as 100 per cent real, it’s still a dream.”