In 'Cosmopolis,' the director David Cronenberg gives cinematic
life to a novel by Don DeLillo.
The social theorist Marshall McLuhan famously described media as
"extensions of man." The filmmaker David Cronenberg, a fellow
Canadian, has made several movies that count as mind-bending
elaborations of that insight.
In "Videodrome" (1983), a video signal embedded in a pornographic
cable broadcast causes hallucinations and bodily transformations in
its viewers. The game players of "eXistenZ" (1999) download
alternate realities by plugging squishy protoplasmic pods directly
into their spines. Mr. Cronenberg's latest film, "Cosmopolis," takes
place in a spectral world of global capital, digital information and
virtual everything. Its currency-trading billionaire hero, cocooned
in a white stretch limousine that serves as a second skin, deals and
speaks in abstractions and is himself something of a hologram, an
inscrutable young master of a conceptual universe.
"Cosmopolis," which is already showing in parts of Europe but is
opening Aug. 17 in the United States, follows the suave Eric Packer
(played by the "Twilight" star Robert Pattinson) on what proves to
be a day of reckoning.
Inching through Manhattan traffic for a haircut on the other side
of town, he receives a succession of experts and analysts in his
leather-upholstered sanctum, which doubles as a boardroom, a bedroom
and even a doctor's office.
External distractions -- a presidential motorcade, anti-
capitalist demonstrations -- appear through tinted windows and on
touch screens. Everything happens and is experienced at a dreamlike
remove. Eric's bet against the Chinese yuan has turned disastrous,
but he responds with eerie detachment, numbly contemplating the
prospect of his economic and actual extinction.
Based on a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, "Cosmopolis" merges the
distinctive sensibilities of a filmmaker and a novelist who have
both been called prophetic, a shorthand way of saying that both have
their antennas up for the larger forces -- language, technology, the
collections of images and systems of knowledge -- that shape our
world and our sense of reality. Films and footage, like the Zapruder
home movie in "Libra," often play crucial roles in Mr. DeLillo's
books, but while several of his novels have been optioned for
adaptation -- "White Noise" and "Libra" were in the works for years -
- until now all had stalled in development.
"Cosmopolis" is hardly obvious screen material on the page. But
Mr. Cronenberg has located cinematic life in other novels that many
would deem unfilmable, whether for being too bizarre (William S.
Burroughs's "Naked Lunch"), too graphic (J. G. Ballard's "Crash") or
too interior (Patrick McGrath's "Spider").
In an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Cosmopolis"
had its premiere in May, Mr. Cronenberg spoke about his approach to
adaptation. "You have to betray the book in order to be faithful to
the book," he said. "You have to recognize that literature is not
But "Cosmopolis," which some critics in Cannes faulted for being
too static, is an almost perversely faithful rendition of the book.
On the telephone from Toronto recently, Mr. Cronenberg said that
claustrophobia was very much the point. "I love the ascetic idea of
so much happening within a limo," he said. "I don't find that it
forces you into monotony. Quite the opposite, it forces you to be
He looked at films that were restricted to cramped locations --
the submarine-set "Das Boot," and "Lebanon," which unfolds inside an
Israeli tank -- and he even moved one scene, an encounter between
Eric and his art dealer, from an apartment into the car.
Mr. DeLillo, for one, might argue that there is something
inherently cinematic about this contained structure. His one
produced screenplay to date, for the 2005 indie "Game 6," is also
about a character stuck in traffic, trying to get from point A to B. …