David Cronenberg never achieved his early aspiration of becoming an “obscure novelist that was too difficult or too dark to be very popular”. As a director and occasional screenwriter, though, he has never been afraid of dividing audiences. “You should be provocative [if you’re an artist],” he once told me. “If you make a movie that everybody loves, you’re in big trouble.”
He was presumably over the moon, therefore, when his glacial adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis split opinion at this year’s 65th Cannes Film Festival. While some critics simply scratched their heads in puzzlement at the opaque tale of twentysomething billionaire Eric Packer’s death trip across New York in a white stretch limo, others praised the film’s cool style (reminiscent of Crash), intelligence, and nuanced central performance by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson.
A long way from the body horror films such as Shivers – in which a parasite spreads sexual anarchy throughout a high-rise building – or Rabid – in which porn star Marilyn Chambers spreads disease from a phallic growth in her armpit – which defined Cronenberg’s fledgling career, Cosmopolis is the director’s view that “dialogue is the essence of cinema” writ large.
This is not a new idea, he says. “Everybody would talk about the gore or the creatures or the science fiction, but if you look at those early movies the dialogue is pretty interesting, I think, still,” he says, when we meet in London a week after Cosmopolis’s Cannes debut. “It’s not the normal low-budget horror dialogue that’s very banal and ordinary. It’s unusual, and the characters are unusual, and I think very funny as well. So I say I have always been concerned to write good dialogue, and to have interesting dialogue.”
Cosmopolis, like his previous film A Dangerous Method (adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure), is such a tsunami of words and ideas, however, that it even took DeLillo, who loves the film, two viewings to absorb everything.
Cronenberg is unapologetic about making viewers work, and dismisses much of modern Hollywood’s output as a “very superficial version of what cinema can be”. “It’s like eating candy,” he says. “You consume it, and then it’s gone and you forget it. I like to put a lot into my movies so that it’s not an instant consumer item.
“Now I’m completely aware that offends some people, because they’re used to the consumer version of cinema, and I say, ‘Well, too bad. Then maybe my cinema’s not for you.’”
What Twihards will make of the latest Robert Pattinson vehicle, and in particular a scene in which Packer undergoes a weirdly sexualised prostate examination, is anyone’s guess. The 26-year-old is surprisingly well cast though, despite personally having doubts about whether he was good enough, playing a role which effectively reverses the journey of many Cronenberg protagonists.
Where a character in the Canadian’s films will often mutate into something else, as in The Fly or Videodrome, Packer is already a kind of alien when Cosmopolis begins. Disconnected from society, and even from his own humanity, by his immense wealth, he gradually transforms back into a recognisable human being, filled with dread and doubt, the closer he gets to fulfilling his own elaborately self-engineered suicide. What had begun as a trip to get a haircut – symbolising “a journey into his past, into his childhood, and perhaps an innocent time,” says Cronenberg – turns into an existential odyssey.
Packer is representative of a type well known to Edouard Carmingnac, a French investment banker and hedge fund manager who put money into the film because he loved the novel’s “absolute accuracy”, says Cronenberg: “He knows many people just like him. Money isn’t real to them any more, or it’s almost a game, or they deal in billions of dollars but never actually touch real money; it’s all in their heads and they don’t even have time to connect with real people in a real way. So for him this is not a fantasy; this is a documentary.”
If the film felt like a fantasy to Cronenberg when he took it on, it started to feel increasingly less so as real world events alarmingly mirrored their story.
“We were directing scenes of anti-capitalist riots in Times Square [on a soundstage in his native Toronto], and then we’d go home and read about the Occupy Wall Steet movement.” On another occasion, Paul Giamatti, who appears as Packer’s executioner/saviour, Benno, texted him just after they’d filmed a scene featuring Mathieu Almaric as a cream pie-throwing anarchist, saying Rupert Murdoch had been attacked with a pie. “We said, ‘This is bizarre. Everything we’re shooting is happening.’ Of course, we never really thought of it per se as a documentary, but it was really interesting to see.”
Cosmopolis inevitably taps into widespread anxieties about capitalism and the yawning gap between haves and have nots. However, looking at what Occupy Wall Street actually stands for (anti-fraud, anti-corruption, anti-greed) made Cronenberg realise that nobody in the film is actually anti-capitalist.
“Occupy Wall Street is pro-capitalist, they just want to be part of it,” he says. “They’re saying capitalism has excluded us and we’ll be happy if we are part of the 1 per cent.” Similarly in the film, Benno hates the younger, more successful Packer because he feels too left out, too old, too left behind. “So in terms of these characters it’s not really an anti-capitalist screed of any kind, it’s an analysis of capitalism.”
And a certain kind of rapacious capitalism at that. In Canada, says Cronenberg, where things are more conservative, the banks have evaded the financial disaster afflicting America because regulation has prevented them from running amok. When banking was deregulated across the border, no-one was amazed by the consequences. “If you just say to Americans, ‘Go crazy’, they will go crazy of course. And they have a history of that. So we’re not surprised.”
Canadian capitalism is less extreme, says Cronenberg. Unlike the Packers of this world, “we just think it’s natural that you want some safety net for certain members of society that can’t hack it, and that’s human. Sure some people try to scam the system, and so what? That’s also human and you try to balance that, too.” He laughs. “In America they think we’re pinko, they think we’re socialist or worse, we’re almost communist. And in the heartland of America, Canada is quite threatening in that way.”
Some Americans also used to find Cronenberg threatening because of his films. Even Martin Scorsese, who’d already directed the violent gangster movie Goodfellas at the time, once admitted to Cronenberg that he was scared of meeting him because he thought he would be “some crazy person”.
It is risky judging an artist by their work, of course. That said, it is hard not to wonder what goes on inside the mind of a man whose films include exploding heads (Scanners), identical twin gynaecologists obsessed with a woman with a “trifurcated cervix” (Dead Ringers), wounds that offer new orifices for sex (Crash), and a sexualised prostate examination (Cosmopolis). The latter make me wonder if Cronenberg believes that anything can be eroticised.
“I think so,” he says unhesitatingly. “Certainly Freud suggests that when he talked about what he called polymorphous perversity: the idea that to the child who is almost pre-sexual in a sense, everything is sexual; eating, shitting, sensuality, touching, drooling, there’s an eroticism to all of that. So I think the answer is yes, under the right circumstances.” He smiles. “And in the right delicate hands, of course.”
It isn’t any wonder that over the years Cronenberg has shocked, sickened and provoked, attracting labels such as the King of Venereal Horror and the Baron of Blood. Subversion and transgression, and a sometimes queasy fascination with human physiology, still colour his work. But its maturity and complexity is now such that no-one could seriously mistake Cronenberg for being “just some kind of schlocky horror film-maker”.
The French love him so much that in 1997 he was made an Officer in the prestigious Order of Arts and Letters, while in Canada (and this could perhaps only happen in Canada) he is regarded as a national treasure.
“I’ve had to endure that,” he says wryly. “But you take strength from it, especially given that I have always been rigorous in being true to my own visions of things, and am not just being loved for the sake of being loved.”
If he ever “lost the edge”, he says it would be time to seriously consider retirement. “I’m not interested in becoming an establishment kind of old fart. That would be the end of your career, and at that point you would hope that you would have the grace to stop.” While he’s still making films as provocative as Cosmopolis, that day, even at 69, looks some way off yet.