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Daniel Lindvall on Cosmopolis

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Daniel Lindvall has a brief but brilliant essay on David Cronenberg’s film Cosmopolis in the web journal Film International.

As Lindvall writes, “The economic divide that places a super-wealthy elite in a condition of invulnerability, social and physical isolation, simultaneously blocks the ability to empathize. The distance separating them from the rest of us becomes so great that they simply lose the ability to see us as proper fellow humans. The logic of the market that transforms everything and everyone into commodities does the rest. When a yuppie looks at us we should probably imagine that he looks at us much as we might look at a dog. Of course there are all sorts of dogs; good dogs, cute dogs, difficult dogs, dangerous dogs, dogs that need to be put down. This is the psychological realism that was captured with such steely elegance by Mary Harron and Christian Bale when they brought American Psycho to the screen in 2000. Patrick Bateman is the image of a monstrous, deranged neoliberalism at its peek; invincible and opaque. No matter how far into madness Bateman takes his blood thirst the world cannot see through the polished masque that he ritually dons every morning with the help of his battery of ultra-exclusive skin care products.

The 28-year old financial billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), whose continuously disrupted journey across Manhattan in a sound proof limousine is narrated in Cosmopolis, is every bit as mentally estranged from the everyday world around him as Bateman and just as brutally indifferent. But Packer’s universe is falling apart around him, assaulted both by anti-capitalist protesters and a market that suddenly turns unpredictable. In the course of the film’s 108 minutes he loses everything. Seen as a story about the financial crisis as such this is obviously not a very realistic depiction. With very few exceptions, the ultra-rich have become even richer, protected with absolute loyalty by the neoliberal state that remains the slavishly obedient guarantor of their wealth and power.

But Cosmopolis is, perhaps, rather more realistic if understood as the nightmare of the contemporary yuppie in a time when neither the vulnerability of the economy in itself nor the realization of Earth’s incapacity to sustain the capitalist production system can be fully repressed. Perhaps, then, what we see here is the initial crumbling of the psychological foundation of the yuppie, the sociopathic self-confidence.

Erich Hobsbawm has spoken of “the short twentieth century,” from the outbreak of World War One to the fall of the Soviet Union. Giovanni Arrighi, on the other hand, wrote about “the long twentieth century,” starting with the Great Depression of 1873-96. Perhaps we could also speak of “the long 1980s” of unlimited neoliberal self-confidence, beginning with the election of the first Thatcher government and possibly reaching the beginning of its end with the Lehman Brothers crash in September 2008. Then again, Eric Packer may well wake up from his nightmare once more, like he did after the initial crisis of the twenty-first century, the period when Don DeLillo’s here adapted novel was written. After all, the yuppie has proven just as difficult to kill off as those other monsters of the long 1980s, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers.”

This is sharp, cogent, impassioned writing, on a topic that is of ever greater importance as the economic scale becomes ever more skewed not only in the United States, but around the world. Cosmopolis is a slick, sleek, and ultimately superficial film, and not one of Cronenberg’s best by a long shot, but then again, the world the film depicts is equally empty, as is Pattinson’s character, which is why, perhaps, the film wasn’t a financial success. For all of its surface sheen, the world Cosmopolis depicts is ultimately the domain of the dead, people interested only in money and status symbol consumption, and perhaps that cuts too close to heart of what has become, in the eyes of some, the “American Dream.” There’s no such thing as equality in this film; only a financially enforced hierarchy in which there are winners and losers. Money is simply a way of keeping score. And when Pattinson’s character loses all his money, there’s nothing left of his life to salvage. In the cold, insular, spectacularly self-absorbed world of Cosmopolis, all anyone wants is cash.

As the fictitious Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) famously observed in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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