Cosmopolis and the incredible shrinking theater



Robert Pattinson, bigger than life and confined to an ant farm
  • Robert Pattinson, bigger than life and confined to an ant farm
One way that David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis improves upon the Don DeLillo source novel is that it balances DeLillo's cerebral prose with an exacting sense of corporeality. The stretch limo in which much of the book (and even more of the movie) takes place is an impossible space—and seeing it rather than imagining it makes one better appreciate the brilliance of the conceit. Eric Packer's 22-foot-long chassis is decked with monitors that feed him information about anything he could possibly want to know; the dialogue, which blithely mentions trips to Arizona, Kazakhstan, and European villas, heightens the feeling that this car somehow contains the whole world. A symbol of outsize consumption and godlike omniscience, Packer's ride is also eerily claustrophobic. Compared to the controlled inside environment, any outside phenomenon seems profoundly unreal. Cronenberg's framing constantly reminds you that Packer and his rotating guests are boxed inside the vehicle, granting comparable amounts of the frame to the ceiling or tinted windows as to faces.

The mise-en-scene advances a paradox M.C. Escher may have appreciated: the characters appear at once larger-than-life and confined to an ant farm. I've now seen Cosmopolis three times in three separate theaters, most recently at Doc Films this past Saturday, and each time it's produced the effect of making the cinema seem to cave in on the audience. It's not just the limo interior that contributes to this effect. Cronenberg maintains the same walled-in compositional sense throughout Cosmopolis, regardless of whether the characters seek refuge in restaurants, ballrooms, or empty streets. Often the filmmaker lines the frame on both sides with objects or architectural figures or else shoots the characters through windows, further confining them within the shot. These are perfect visual analogues to DeLillo's mannered dialogue, which addresses the 21st-century anxiety of information eclipsing physical experience and which also has the effect of insulating the characters from the disorder of real life.

I suspect the film is a different—and likely inferior—experience on DVD. The day after I attended Doc Films's screening, I discussed Cosmopolis with a friend who watched it at home around the same time that I saw it at Ida Noyes Hall. Though a fan of both Cronenberg and DeLillo, he took no enjoyment from the movie. "I felt like it was pushing me away," he said, noting his frustration with the blatantly artificial New York "locations" and Robert Pattinson's unwavering lead performance. I could understand his frustration. Even certain colleagues of mine who admire Cosmopolis have admitted to enjoying it only after a second viewing, once they see past the anticlimactic narrative structure and the weird humor takes root. But more importantly, the home viewing environment renders a movie smaller from the get-go, essentially nullifying Cronenberg's incredible shrinking act.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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