Cosmopolis (2012), directed by David Cronenberg

They said Don DeLillo was unfilmable! They said it couldn’t be done!

The question now is should it be done?

I saw Cosmopolis on a Thursday night, downtown with three other people in the audience. Two of them, a couple, left about 10 minutes into it. Consider that with the fact that Robert Pattinson is one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now, because he plays a mean sparkly vampire. Actually part of me really hoped that a big group of giggly preteens would be in the theatre only knowing that Pattinson was in it. I wanted to see the look of utter confusion on their faces.

Now I’m a fan of Don DeLillo and a huge fan of David Cronenberg, so this seemed like a hell of a combo to me. Granted Cosmopolis is probably my least favourite DeLillo book out of those I’ve read and Cronenberg hasn’t exactly been blowing my mind (or any heads) lately, but still, my curiosity was piqued.

The film is exactly what I should have predicted it would be. Visually it’s lush and interesting, but while the detached, post-modern ramblings of DeLillo’s novels work on the page, they are hard to keep up with and stay interested in up on the screen. The film felt like more of an experiment than anything actually enjoyable or compelling to watch. Cronenberg’s sense of style and tone certainly drew me in and kept me somewhat engaged, as did the performances, but by the end I was glad it was over.

I have really been having trouble with films like this lately. Maybe I’m getting older and softer or something, but when it comes to these post-modern dissertations I end up feeling cold. I get what they’re doing, I studied DeLillo in university, I’m hip to the pm (post-modern, in non-existant slang), but I can’t say I much enjoy it on the screen. Or at least not with a film like this, that takes itself incredibly seriously and is really trying to drive home a POINT. What that POINT is is a little oblique, but damn does it ever want you to think about it.

For one thing, we get it right? When DeLillo wrote his novel it was before the recession and all that, so maybe painting the Wall Street elite as somehow something less than gods shook up the establishment a bit. Now, thanks to global financial meltdown, we all know those guys are a bunch of narcissistic, soulless creeps (warning: generalization). So for me to see the dark corners of a 28-year-old billionaire’s soul didn’t exactly blow my mind. And I know the film is also an indictment of those of us who hate those guys too, as seen with Paul Giamatti’s character, but by that time I had really lost interest.

The problem is that it’s just not that interesting to watch. The film takes place primarily in one location, the back of a limousine. Characters come and go, taking time to engage in abstract, rambling, emotionless conversations with Pattinson’s character. Pattinson himself stares dead eyed for the majority of the film. The whole thing is an exercise is passivity and apathy, an intended discomforting expose on the meaningless of money and technology.

And while I sympathize with all that, it sure is a bore to stare at for nearly two hours.

The film was not a total failure by any means. I enjoyed watching the way Cronenberg handled the material. Some of the supporting actors stuck out, such as Jay Baruchel and Sarah Gadon. I bet you could watch it seven times and notice new elements that you had missed with each watch. You could definitely write a university paper on it (I may have on the book…). There are some interesting ideas being batted around.

But does that really mean you want to watch it? Judging by the “crowd” I saw it with, no.

Cosmospolis is in theatres now.

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011), directed by David Cronenberg

Somewhere around the early 2000s David Cronenberg must have decided it was time for a change of pace. After a quarter century of directing some of the most creepy and challenging psych-horror movies ever made, that typically revolved around external manifestations of internal strife, David (do you mind if I call him David?) decided to go to the source.

It started with Spider (2002), in which, unlike other Cronenberg features, it turned out the guy actually was crazy. Then came the masterpiece A History of Violence (2005), where average man Tom Stall turned out to be hiding a violent and psychotic past. Now we have A Dangerous Method which is just straight up academic psychology. And a lot of letter reading.

I guess it makes sense but it seems as Cronenberg moves forward he is more interested in the core of things. I don’t think this is a conscious choice or that he is on some personal quest to discover the key to human psychology, but his choices lately do suggest a change of pace. I didn’t see a single gun coming out of a stomach vagina in this movie. What up with that?

A Dangerous Method is the story of the relationship between three of the pioneering psychologists at the turn of the 20th century. Two of them we’ve all heard of (Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud) and the other mostly nobody has heard of (Sabina Spielrein). Viggo Mortensen plays the father figure Freud, Michael Fassbender plays the young Jung (ha!) and, in a surprisingly brave performance, Keira Knightley plays Spielrein.

The film is about Jung and Freud’s professional relationship and Jung and Spielrein’s personal, albeit somewhat academic, relationship. She comes to Jung as a tortured young woman, contorting her body uncontrollably and acting stark raving mad. He decides to employ a revolutionary new tactic: he talks to her. Turns out her father beat her and this excited her sexually and now she is paralyzed by feelings of guilt and shame.

Jung helps her get over this by spanking her, naturally. It’s not quite that simple of course but they do engage in a power play relationship, which helps her to normalize her desires and function as a regular person.

For a film so devoted to sex there is little of it, just to warn you. A couple scenes of spanking and Vincent Cassel feeling up a nurse are about it. The rest is a lot of talking, which is appropriate. And letter writing. Jung talks to Spielrein and then to Freud. Spielrein writes a letter to Freud. Freud writes a letter to Jung about Spielrein’s letter. Spielrein talks to Jung, asking him to write a letter to Freud. He does and then Freud writes back. They sail to America and talk on the way. You get the picture.

If you’re studying psychology or are particularly drawn to its origins then this might be the film for you. I’m sure this says a lot about the relationship between academics and “real life”. For everyone else, quite honestly, it will be a little boring. And that’s not something you often hear me say. I like slow movies. This perhaps is a bit much.

There are many things to like about A Dangerous Method. The acting is fabulous, especially Fassbender, who I am liking more and more with every film I see him in. Also, in a surprising turn of events, I quite liked Knightley here. Normally I find her performances shallow and dull, but she really pulled out all the stops to play this complicated woman and not have her come off as some sort of sexy, objectified character. She comes off as a person and that must be hard to do in a film that revolves around you getting spanked.

Still, that being said, even at just over an hour and a half the film is a long haul. There are some very interesting ideas and theories being batted around, and it is compelling to see the way that these characters, with such a deep understanding of human drives, interact with each other. It is also at times riveting to see how they develop the theories of human psychology that would come to define the field, as they sort of make it up as they go along. And how their own personalities influence their work.

By the end though I’d had enough. Cronenberg is pretty straight laced in his presentation and there were few visual touches to keep me engaged. His attention to detail is impressive, as is the lighting, but this is a very conventionally filmed period piece that I’m afraid doesn’t have enough going for it in terms of content to support its pace. Not only that, not a single head explodes. I mean come. on.

A Dangerous Method is available on DVD and Blu-ray.