David Cronenberg directs and writes this adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, Koji Wakamatsu's take on Yukio Mishima in 11.25, and the really weak The Taste of Money from Korea's Im Sang-soo.With so many returns to the filmmaking fold after prolonged absences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it became easy to overlook the fact that David Cronenberg, one of the higher profile director’s in this year’s Competition, was in a sense returning as well. Returning, not to directing (his last film came out not even one year ago), but to a style of filmmaking that he had worked toward disguising over the last ten years. Over this period, Cronenberg has mainly taken to visualizing other people’s material, generally imbuing both the author’s original text and the screenwriter’s adaptations (Spider, A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method) with his career-long thematic concerns. So while these pictures, all very good to great, feel very much of a piece with Cronenberg’s catalogue, there was an unhinged, stylistic provocation missing—very much intended, but the distance between, say, Crash and A Dangerous Method, is about as extreme an artistic divide in contemporary cinema.
When word came down that not only would Cronenberg be directing an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis, but be writing the screenplay himself—solo, and for the first time since 1999s sci-fi mind-melt eXinstenZ—it sent the minds of the Canadian provocateur’s fans reeling. Would this finally be Cronenberg’s re-embrace of the more extreme tendencies of his earlier work? The answer is most definitely yes, though in the end that may be the most worthwhile attribute of the film, which revels in surface pleasures and feigns philosophical for 100 straight minutes. And I don’t even mean that negatively, as Cosmopolis is meant to be read as an allegory, all hollow, corporatized lingo, faux-doctorate ranting, and political stream-of-consciousness. The film plays at all moments with the dial turned to 11, un-dynamic in an oppositional sense wherein heightened theatricality takes precedence over anything even approaching contemplation or meditation. It’s as exhausting a sit as anything to play at Cannes this year.
It’s also one of the more stylistically invigorating. But good luck with subtly. From the first scene we receive the film’s single plot point—get Robert Pattinson a hair cut—and then proceed for the next 90-odd minutes to watch him attempt to accomplish said goal amidst a culturally deteriorating New York City full of vermin-dependent citizens, riot mobs, and a roll call of actors tasked with single scene sparings with Pattinson’s gauchely one-dimensional Eric Packer. Cronenberg, per the novel, confines the action mainly to Packer’s crosstown limousine ride and a succession of pit-stops and rendezvous at various diners and apartments. These characters exist beyond traditional definitions of good or evil—they just are, and it’s better not to question the film’s logic or attempt to dig into some impressively hollow dialogue (the ratio of negligible to vital information imparted in Cosmopolis has to be one of the most audience-unfriendly splits in recent film).
The film, then, inevitably falls on Cronenberg’s chiseled direction and on down to Pattinson and his verbal opponents’ performances. One scene after another features a familiar face—Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, and Mathieu Amalric all put in appearances—and while the episodic cameo tact utilized here (as it was in Walter Salles’ On the Road) grows tired, at least the parts feel correctly cast and nicely performed. Cosmopolis does come on like gangbusters, never letting let one catch their breath, but in it’s determinism lies a discontent with modern America. Cronenberg appropriately offers no easy answers, and as a result Cosmopolis strikes me as especially bleak. There’s certainly a reason why Cronenberg would want to personally adapt DeLillo’s novel, and it’s this passion which eventually pulls the audience kicking and screaming through the ringer, forcing one to confront the issues presented and make a moral decision one way or the other, whether that’s what you want from a movie or not. One thing's clear: Cronenberg’s back, and he’s not letting anyone off the hook.
A similar passion seems to have permeated the recent work of Japanese journeyman director Koji Wakamatsu, who’s 2007 feature, United Red Army, is one of contemporary cinema’s most outraged treatises. Part docu-fiction, part action picture, United Red Army chronicled the plight of the titular political group through Japan of the 1960s and ‘70s. 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, a thematic, spiritual, and political successor to United Red Army, feels like it’s coming from the same place of unrest as it’s parent film, but Wakamatsu’s latest work unfortunately lacks the visual splendor, storytelling ease, and dramatic compositional and technical design strategies of it’s predecessor. Set concurrently within URA-era Japan, 11.25 and United Red Army intersect historical and political details, pairing them as companion films. The discrepancy in quality between the two, however, is unfortunate.
Charting the rise and eventual suicide of Yukio Mishima, the celebrated and controversial novelist-turned-political-activist, 11.25 leans on built-in dramatics to keep it afloat, even as Wakamatsu and his actors do what they can to drown it in clumsy execution. From an aesthetic standpoint, the film looks lightyears away from the beautifully hyperactive United Red Army—production design is stale and flat and the whole thing looks like it cost a fraction of what Wakamatsu’s recent films must have (in fact, his days in the low budget pinku eiga industry feels like a more appropriate stylistic comparison). The acting, to say the least, leaves something to be desired from a subtly standpoint, even by Wakamatsu’s standards, which usually keep delivery at a heightened level. But ultimately 11.25 suffers for lack of import: both Paul Schrader’s 1985 film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Mishima’s own 1960 short film, Patriotism, are better dissections of the man and his problematic passion (not to mention aesthetic marvels). One wishes Wakamatsu’s own passion translated here in a more satisfying manner.
Passion is at the forefront of every character’s actions in The Taste of Money, curious Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo’s newest pseudo soft-core melodrama. A sequel of sorts to Im’s pointless 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, The Taste of Money utilizes it’s characters as a springboard into slick, high class farce. Or at least I’d like to hope it’s farce, though I get the feeling it’s not. This film is so bad in almost every conventional sense of the term—atrocious acting, nonsensical writing, leering direction—that there’s little reward to outlining it’s plot, as that would imply that I’ve put more thought into the film than the director presumably did. This is the stuff of late night teenage Cinemax dreams, just with ten times the budget and a platform to rick-roll an entire festival audience. It’s by default the worst film I’ve seen at Cannes this year, and while we all sat watching with a perverse pleasure it’s total ineptitude, it’s not enough to swing this into camp territory or elevate it to the level of trash reserved for the more compulsively entertaining of cult flicks. Then again, after ten days of mostly art house fare, I suppose we were due a comedy. [PM]