Cosmopolis: He’s Made of Money
Cosmopolis is a film about rapid, difficult conversations mostly taking place in a car. Its narrative stakes are obscure, it lacks anything like a climax, and it features some of the most soulless and alienated characters I have seen. Yet compelling direction from Canadian vet David Cronenberg and its timely indictment of our finance-driven way of life make it a bleak, deconstructive comedy worth watching.
For this post, I would like to narrow my focus to what I think is the master theme of the film: the human body. Cronenberg, who has directed such fleshly pictures as The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Crash (no, not that one), is obviously preoccupied with embodiment as a subject. For him, the body is a site of transformation, suffering, pleasure, and horror. But humans are not merely flesh but also psychology, and therefore a place where we can see “normative” boundaries between mind and body, inside and outside, and all sorts of others break down and blur. In Cosmopolis, Cronenberg investigates what I would call financial bodies, bodies that are abstracted, rationalized, and monetized into nonexistence or irrelevance.
We’ll be looking first at the body of our protagonist, Eric Packer (perfectly embodied by Robert Pattinson). A financial wunderkind worth tens of billions of dollars, he initiates the plot of the film by setting out across New York City in search of a haircut. This day, however, the American President is also in town, as well as a mob of anarchist protesters and a so-called “credible threat” to Packer’s life. While this is going on, he is intentionally destroying his company and personal fortune through bad currency speculation. Much of the reasoning for this remains mysterious, though hints surface here and there. The film makes much of the tedium and arduousness of his slow advance through the city in a technically advanced and closely guarded stretch limousine, outwardly identical to all the others. While Packer is able to manage all aspects of his business using his networked car and its various computer interfaces, he must bodily move from one side of the city to another to get his haircut.
At the beginning of the film, Packer is also obsessed with network security, which is in contrast to his blithe disregard for his bodily safety. To him, it is the world of numbers, harmonious patterns, and financial transactions that is real. Money, which is merely an abstract metaphor for our desires, has displaced the real. As his so-called Chief of Theory explicates to him in one of the more baffling scenes, wealth in this world of finance exists only to replicate and grow itself, mirroring the cancers Packer is keen to avoid with his daily medical checkups. We see one of these checkups–a prostate exam–take place during a conversation between Packer and another of his advisers. Even during sex, he can think of nothing other than wealth or the minutia of securing it. This is why I argue that his “body,” the location of his desires, pleasures (if they even exist), and pain, resides not in his physical self but in the ethereal, almost Gnostic realm of investment. He and his company are one. At the beginning of the film, he is barely a person other than how a corporation is a “person.” He is a legal entity able to possess and transfer sums.
Over the course of the film, Packer undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts, breaking out of his chrysalis of currency and emerging as a Real person again. This is visually and thematically indicated in a number of ways. His concerns about his asymmetrical prostate reintroduce concerns for his shell of a body, since it presents an insecurity that cannot be accounted for in his clean and perfect calculus. The threat of aging hangs over his head, and he muses that he used to be “younger than everyone else” but is now confronting, in a small way, the spectre of death. His fall from wealth on a wild bet echoes the story of Icarus, and is reified in the graffiti stains that accumulate on his limousine, the journey from glistening skyscrapers to run-down working class neighbourhoods, and a surprise pie in the face from a would-be assassin. Currency is also identified with rats in an amusing early conversation, and it is both a symbol for the corruption of wealth and the rallying symbol for anarchists who try to reject the system but end up being a part of it.
At the end, faced with his own murder at the hands of a disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti, he shoots himself in the hand. We see the blood run down, and he starts to cry and heave in real pain. Having forcibly stripped himself of the imaginary cushion of wealth, he now confronts the real world in all of its ugliness. He is revealed, at last, as a real human being. Though still intelligent and perceptive, he has also gained a measure of awareness. He sees through the false, self-important “righteousness” of Giamatti’s character, and confronts death. While he is never admirable or sympathetic, exactly, he has emerged as a human, and at the last shot in the film, where we do not know whether he is shot or not, that is the important part.
Pattinson’s performance and Cronenberg’s camera are able to tell us that, whatever despicable things Packer has done, he is no less human than those protesters. Something admirable about Cosmopolis is that, while it is clearly a film critiquing the suffocating excess of wealth and its displacement and marginalization of the poor, it does not let the audience off with an easy moral or a tidy political solution. This is why, even though the dialogue in the film is abstract and didactic, the film still feels unresolved and tense throughout. It might be obvious about what it’s about, but it’s far more obtuse about what it thinks we should do about it. It’s a film that points to the smouldering wreckage of global consumer capitalism while admitting that we in the first world have our entire identity invested in it.