Cannes 2012: Cosmopolis, Sightseers
Cronenberg does DeLillo, Ben Wheatley does a serial-killer comedy—and everybody wins.
Fri May 25 2012
Both a first-rate adaptation and the ideal dystopian nervous breakdown for our post-Occupy moment, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis kicks off with a Zbigniew Herbert quote (“a rat became the unit of currency”) and ends with a 1 percenter in a stalemate with his proletariat opposite. In between those two moments, we get nothing less than a sleek, surreal portrait of modern society as the ultimate fluctuating market, as seen from the tinted windows of a stretch limo slithering through the Gothampocalyse. Determined to get a haircut despite a presidential visit to NYC tying up traffic and some vague threats on his life, Wall Street boy wonder Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) takes off in his fully furnished great white whale, taking meetings and fucking mistresses as he inches uptown. The journey lasts well into the night, and shit will get weirder before it gets better—see “directed by” credit—on the way to Packer’s date with destiny and a short-in-the-back-and-sides trim. At the end, a reckoning of sorts awaits.
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Forget, for a moment, that novelist Don DeLillo’s works are only slightly less “filmable” than Finnegans Wake and the Bible. Given their mutual love of dense philosophical musings, free-floating paranoia and the warping of language, it now seems inevitable that Cronenberg and the author would get around to collaborating. The smart money would have been on DeLillo’s White Noise, but his 2003 mondo-yuppie take on Dante’s Inferno may have been a more inspired choice; it’s an ideal match of filmmaker and material. Cronenberg has always understood the way that perfect surfaces hide uncontrollable maelstroms, and how the ruptures of said facades—caused by sexuality, biology, technology, violence or, usually, an incestuous combination of all four—offer mind-fucks of enlightenment. Duplicating DeLillo’s chronicle of an insular vessel gliding through deep space, a.k.a. the void of midtown Manhattan, the Canadian director finds those ruptures everywhere: in the encounters Parker has with tech geeks and his fembot fiancée, in the hilariously sexualized prostate exam he receives en route, in the riots filled with shouting protestors and men in rat suits, in the sight of a bored billionaire shooting a hole in his hand for the nihilistic hell of it.
As played by Pattinson—who’s apparently been involved in some movie franchise or other, the name of which escapes me—that bored billionaire is a heavy-lidded dead-eyed shark who’s lost his grip on reality. Packer is a sparkly bloodsucker of a different sort, the assets-management and global-currency kind (this has been the year of the aggressive capitalism critique at Cannes), and the star’s idle futzing around with his pimped ride’s cybertoys communicates a pretty-boy Nero fiddling among Rome’s ruins. It’s inspired casting, if not a matchup to equal the Cronenberg-Mortensen combo, and adds a level of celeb frisson to the Masters of the Universe malaise. In fact, virtually everything works, from the intra-Cronenberg echoes (notably Videodrome, Crash and eXistenZ) on down, sickening and sating in all the right measures; having been one of the most anticipated movies at this year’s festival, it’s now officially one of its best.
From nightmarish American excess to giddy British duress: As modest as Cosmopolis is grand, Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers continues the filmmaker’s winning streak re kitchen-sinkifying genre movies. Setting out on their first holiday together, sheltered 34-year-old Tina (Alice Lowe) and her overly enthusiastic, socially awkward boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram), pack up his caravan and hit the road to Yorkshire. Along the way, Chris runs over a fellow traveler (to be fair, he was littering) and bludgeons a snooty camper to death; Tina soon learns that these aren’t the first murders he’s committed. But hey, you’ve got to stand by your man, and with two people now indulging their homicidal urges in the name of true love, the body count quickly escalates.
Remember how everyone described Wheatley’s 2009 debut Down Terrace as “Mike Leigh does The Sopranos”? This is what Leigh’s version of Natural Born Killers might have looked like, and once again, Wheatley blends horror, black comedy, working-class realism, actor improvisations and social satire into an oddball meditation on l’amour fou, suburban English serial-killer style. It’s the funniest thing to have played on the Croisette, The Paperboy notwithstanding, and next to Pablo Larraín’s No, the highlight of the Directors' Fortnight sidebar. IFC picked up the film for an American release; pray it has the smarts and savvy to open it on Valentine’s Day.
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