Over the next few weeks, I will be releasing a series of 10 essays about my top 10 films of the 2010s. These will not be comprehensive, lengthy essays about every aspect of each of the films, but will instead by shorter essays about single elements that I found worth discussing or interesting. These essays will not necessarily spoil every part of the film but they will be spoiling elements fairly freely. Obviously I recommend you see each of these films.
In the climactic scene of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) decides to shoot himself in the hand. He doesn’t seem to know why he does it, although earlier dialogue hints that he’s desperate to feel something. Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti) rushes to give him tissues to help him with the bleeding, despite the fact that he’s there to kill Packer. And so, as Packer sits there, cradling his bleeding hand, he looks up at his would-be assassin and plaintively gives him a single piece of information.
“My prostate is asymmetrical.”
This is news to Levin, but not to the audience, as earlier Packer had gotten a prostate exam in his limo while driving across Manhattan to get a haircut.
Cosmopolis is a weird movie.
Cronenberg has become rightly famous in film circles for his obsession with body horror, very little of which makes it into Cosmopolis (although the part where Packer shoots himself in the hand is presented graphically on screen) but the dialogue about Packer’s prostate and its asymmetry indicate that Cronenberg’s preoccupation with our fragile human forms remains in place. But Cosmopolis is not a film about our fragile human forms. It’s a film about alienation.
Take the character of Packer, whose wealth and power have so insulated him from the average human experience that he barely even acts like a person anymore. A few months back, an excerpt from the Don DeLillo book Cosmopolis is adapted from began doing the rounds on tumblr, with people mocking it for Packer telling his wife how much he likes her mother’s tits. And yeah, I can see why that would be worthy of mockery, it’s a bizarre and inhuman thing to say to another person (much less your wife) but that is the point. In another conversation with her (and both of these conversations in the book make it into the film, by the by) he comments “We are having a conversation. This is what people do.”
Packer and his group have no idea how to connect to humanity at large (at one point one of his advisors comments “People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do.”) Throughout the film he and the people he converse with talk past each other, sentences barely seeming to connect, only ever really standing on solid ground when they talk about money, only connecting when finance is at stake.
And throughout it all, Packer is detached. He loses vast sums of money, and regards it with vague bemusement. He meets with his wife by chance three times, and over the course of it their relationship dissolves and he barely even seems to notice. The only time he seems to show emotion is when he’s informed a rapper he loves has died, where he (oddly enough) breaks down and weeps.
So there, then, is our theme, yes? The 1%’s wealth has insulated them from their humanity and thus they need to reconnect with it? Surely our representative of the working class will be more human.
Except the one real example of a working class person we meet is Benno Levin, the would-be assassin, who is if anything even more alienated. He used to work for Packer, doing currency analysis, even if Packer doesn’t recognize him or know him at all, and he was so isolated from what his work was used for or what it meant that he grew to hate it, and as a result he is alienated from every aspect of himself.
He’s alienated from his masculinity (when Packer presses him on what kind of gun he’s using or what the attachments on it do, he admits “I don’t have the manhood to know those names.”), from his identity (his real name is Robert Sheets and when Packer calls him by his given name he screams “I want to be known as Benno!”) even from his actions (Packer suggests that his desire to kill Packer is something he caught from others and he can barely offer a coherent reason for why he’s going to kill Packer). His place under capitalism has left him so broken down and alienated it is, as he says “All [he] can do to be a person.”
And so, when Packer tells him about his prostate’s asymmetry, the strangest thing happens: They connect. Benno tells him that his prostate is asymmetrical too, but also that it means nothing, that it’s a meaningless anomaly. For a single moment, the two of them connect over the last thing left of their shared humanity, their physical bodies. There may be no moment where James Woods’ hand turns into a fleshy gun, but Cronenberg’s preoccupation with bodies remains.
It’s not a moment that lasts, and Benno continues ranting about how justified his killing of Packer is, how his death is justified because of the size of Packer’s apartment and what he paid for it, by the fact that his limo displaces the air they need to breathe in Bangladesh and about how Packer looks like he’s dead already. And while that’s true, it doesn’t actually matter; As Packer says, he’s never cared about anyone but himself. In the end, as the film closes with Benno pointing the gun at Packer’s head, sobbing about how he was hoping Packer would save him, Benno is going to kill him because of the reason he gave when Packer first arrived:
“I want to kill you because I want to count for something in my own life.”