Cosmopolis (Canada, 2012)
David Cronenberg’s filmography reads like a series of stylistically and thematically varied attempts to probe the limits of and potential exceptions to both bodily and subjective completeness and coherency. Thanks to the immense visceral power of his gore effects in films such as Scanners and The Fly, Cronenberg is still known primarily for his insistently graphic depictions of (inventive) violations of bodily integrity for his characters. However, Cronenberg is emphatic about the inseparability of body and mind: his characters’ bodily abjection is equally a psychic abjection, whether physical mutation or mutilation is the cause or the result of the lack of the “clean and proper” mind. Since The Fly, Cronenberg’s moved away from strict genre films but has continued to pursue his intense interest in monstrosity – physical and mental. More than that, his recent films *feel* consistent with his earlier work.They feel like horror films, have the same emotional range, dabble in the uncanny and the fantastic.
From his first avant-garde narrative films to his genre breakthrough Shivers to more explicit explorations of subjective perception such as Videodrome, eXistenZ and Spider, Cronenberg has brought a literal-minded approach to issues of subjective instability: telepathy, monstrous psyches, technology invading our brains, all complicate the idea that our minds – our selves – are distinct, separate and complete. Cronenberg’s characters often physically experience or manifest events that originate within their psyche (or that of another character). The line between hallucination (and sometimes media image) and reality can be hopelessly blurred, while the films that are less literally about fantasy are the ones that feel the most unreal or dreamlike: Dead Ringers, Crash and now Cosmopolis.
For Cronenberg, it is perhaps the case that distinction between hallucination and “reality” is unimportant. In his most recent film, the much-derided Cosmopolis – one of his only films to receive a largely negative critical reaction since the early 1980s when his films were marginalized as exercises in a degraded genre by mainstream critics – marks a significant development in this respect. A general feeling of unreality, heightened to an extent not seen before in his work, aided by the highly stylized dialogue (taken from Don Delillo’s source novel?), is never explicitly associated with an unstable intellect’s perception of events – as it is in Videodrome and Spider. The film never explicitly questions whether the events depicted have actually happened within the diegesis; the mise-en-scene of the film’s high-tech limo setting, the surreal events taking place just outside the protagonist’s screen-like windows, and the sudden, weakly motivated narrative shifts building to a climax that feels like a hallucination even if the film never explicitly suggests that it may be “unreal.” In the final scene, both the protagonist and his would-be assassin ground the narrative in a physical, corporeal reality. Robert Pattinson’s protagonist shoots himself through the hand, bleeding in pain in contrast with the long series of virtual attacks and losses that have failed to register. Paul Giamatti’s assassin, sweaty and overweight in a way that highlights his physicality that the toned physiques of the rest of the cast do not, lives in an abandoned building without plumbing – bringing a discussion of bodily waste into the dialogue.
The film ends with the assassin holding a gun to the protagonist’s head. Cronenberg, however, portrays this scene – highly reminiscent of the final scene/shot of Videodrome in both its situation and in its ultimate refusal of resolution – which would seemingly ground the action once and for all in a literal, concrete narrative reality, through a subtle but unmistakable composite shot. That is, the protagonist and the assassin were filmed separately, the final image being the result of placing elements of the two images within the same frame. This final statement of unreality (or, more fittingly considering the film’s techno-capitalist themes, “virtuality”) indicates a distance from the “real” that perhaps even the corporeal cannot recover. The unreality/virtuality of the film’s world and its narrative is not based in a subjective perception but a general uncertainty about the reality of the film’s events and their real-world effects. The question, ultimately, in Cosmopolis is not “is this really happening?”, but, “what does it mean for an event to ‘happen’?” And how do we know? Cronenberg reaches an endpoint of this train of thought, where the final resolution can only be decided through the main character’s death.