Film reviews – Cosmopolis (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

30 August 2012

The latest films by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and American filmmaker Wes Anderson are on the surface wildly different works, however, a comparison of the two films suggests that they are two-sides of the same cinematic coin. Both are films that seem to have taken several cues from Stanley Kubrick in the adoption of a minimalist visual style that relies on meticulous framing, symmetry and an almost self-aware set of conventions surrounding camera movement. Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom are about self-contained spaces that reflect a version of reality that is recognisable enough to connect with the real world despite containing so many abstract elements. Both are films with child or child-like protagonists who are surrounded by a strange ensemble of supporting characters. The major point of difference is that while Cosmopolis is set in the not-so-distant future to depict the metaphorical end of humanity, Moonrise Kingdom is set in a stylised version of the past to present humanity at its most hopeful.

The child-like character at the centre of Cosmopolis is the young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who slowly cruises across a gridlocked Manhattan in a stretch limousine to get a haircut. Packer is not a child in the sense of being vulnerable and innocent, as instead he displays a childlike view of being the centre of the universe and entitled to everything around him. His domain is the limousine and while he has the privilege to enter and leave it as it suits him, it nevertheless serves as a protective womb for him when he wants it to. Unlike the limousine in Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012), which functions as a transformative and transitional space, Packer’s limousine in his command centre, completely insulated from all intrusions – including external noise – and totally ‘safe from penetration’.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) and Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon)

At the centre of this self-made contained universe sits Packer’s who carries out the most mundane and the most intimate activities with the various associates he picks up on the way or briefly stops off to visit. Whether discussing politics, having his prostate checked while speaking with an employee or having sex, Packer maintains an air of detached boredom as if he can’t wait for the apocalypse to arrive. Pattinson is ideally cast as Packer since he is a man-child with power and influence way beyond the capacity of his years, existing as an idealised version of success and beauty without the emotional depth to channel any real feeling. He’s like a character from a previous Cronenberg film Crash (1996), or many of the other novels by Crash author JG Ballard, in that he craves some kind of stimulus or sensation to wake him from the lethargy of his controlled and convenient life, whether that be illicit sex, acts of violence or risking his life by seeking a confrontation with somebody who wants to kill him.

Closely adapted from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, it is remarkable the extent that Cosmopolis feels like a post-GFC, post-Occupy and post-Facebook film. On the surface level there are the news reports of political assassinations, glimpses of anti-capitalist protests on the streets and an early scene between Packer and his young associate Shiner (Jay Baruchel) that feels like a reenactment of any number of scenes between Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). What really stands out is how much better DeLillo’s almost absurdist dialogue sounds when spoken in the film rather than read on the page, and how much Cronenberg uses the dialogue to capture the death of meaning.

Words that DeLillo may have intended as dark abstractions about the decline of western civilisation become the basis for comedic performance pieces throughout Cosmopolis where the characters have extended intense and purposeful conversations about economics, politic and philosophy without actually saying anything. Like the symbols on panels and screens littered throughout the interior of Packer’s futuristic limousine, the building blocks for communication are there but they aren’t arranged in a way that makes sense anymore. All that is left are signifiers broken down to their basic components by a character who despite his wealth and assumed sophistication is still a mere mortal who pisses, shits, fucks, eats and bleeds. Spiralling into self-destruction because language has lost all meaning and there’s nothing else to do, Packer is a classic Cronenberg hero who has engineered his own annihilation.

If Cosmopolis deconstructs language and ideas into meaninglessness to present a darkly funny satire about destruction (it’s Cronenberg’s most humorous film since eXistenZ in 1999) then Moonrise Kingdom does the opposite. Dialogue in Wes Anderson films is typically reduced to essential words and phrases, to be spoken deadpan by actors without emotion. However, instead of the absurdist illusion of meaning that is presented in Cosmopolis, Anderson strips down language and other cinematic conventions to reveal something far more pure and sincere. In the case of Moonrise Kingdom it is adolescent love and hope for the future.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)

The child protagonists in Moonrise Kingdom are 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (another newcomer, Kara Hayward). The pair live on an island off New England and run away together; Sam abandons a Scout camp he is attending and Suzy leaves home. While two unknown young actors are in the lead, the supporting cast is filled out with very experienced and recognisable actors who represent different levels of authority over the children; from Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, to Bruce Willis as police Captain Sharp to Tilda Swinton as a social services worker, to Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents. The inverse of having big name actors in supporting roles to unknown child actors reflects Anderson’s playful inverting of ideas throughout Moonrise Kingdom where the most serious relationship is the one between the children and where characters representing the police and the military-like scout troop become more sympathetic to the plight of the children than characters representing social welfare and the family.

While the production design and wide angle cinematography of Cosmopolis evoke Kubrick films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), the gliding dolly shots, precise movements that almost appear choreographed and theatrical framing of Moonrise Kingdom seem to be inspired by Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980).  Anderson also repeatedly uses military-style percussion through Moonrise Kingdom for both rhythmic editing and a comedic soundtrack in a way that even suggests Kubrick’s war films. Anderson’s approach perfectly suits the focus on ritual present throughout Moonrise Kingdom.

Sequences of social interaction, most notably the inspections at the scout camp, are orchestrated as a complex dance where every element of the interaction is broken down into an isolated action for a singe character to perform in order to contribute to an overall cohesion. If language is deconstructed in Cosmopolis to reveal a loss of meaning, the dynamics of community and relationships are deconstructed in Moonrise Kingdom to reveal the importance of human interaction, both on a public and on a personal level. Every element needs to play a part for the whole to function and rather than remove a disruptive element (for example, Sam) the community adapts to accommodate new dynamics.

The breaking down of social interaction into segments to form a whole is reflected in both Suzy’s preference for looking at the world up close through binoculars and the use of Benjamin Britten’s music throughout the film. Most notable is Britten’s 1946 work ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ where all the separate elements of an orchestra are isolated and described by a narrator to demonstrate the importance of every instrument. The irony of the piece of music is that the formal descriptions don’t do justice to the overall sensation when all the elements come together, and Anderson seems coyly aware of this with his film. Moonrise Kingdom is a very formal work in terms of style and narrative, but the overall effect of the film is very different to what would be typically expected from such a deliberate approach to cinema. Instead of feeling detached and cold, Moonrise Kingdom is an extremely sweet and heartfelt portrayal of young love and how such love inspires the lives of others who encounter it.

Both Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are glorious contradictions. Cosmopolis deconstructs language, symbols and theories to present a sprawling and dense post-GFC Heart of Darkness. Cronenberg reveals himself to be a prankster as it becomes apparent that Cosmopolis is ultimately about arriving at a cultural and philosophical end point where nothing has any real meaning anymore. On the other hand, Moonrise Kingdom is an overtly stylised work set in the past where human behaviour is drolly reduced to ritual and routine. However, through this shines new love and the potential for many of the characters to find happiness. Anderson is a prankster too, appearing detached and indifferent and yet producing one of the year’s most warm and humane films. Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are beautifully crafted works that breakdown the way people relate to themselves and each other. One film offers a vision of our death, the other promises a new world.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – A Dangerous Method (2011)

29 March 2012
A Dangerous Method: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

One of the few working directors who deserves to be recognised as an auteur is David Cronenberg and a signature element to his films is how much they invite psychoanalytic readings. So to have Cronenberg direct a film about psychoanalysis founders and pioneers Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is something of a cinephile’s dream come true. In A Dangerous Method, which was based on the play The Talking Cure (by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay) and the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method (John Kerr) Jung is using Freud’s talk therapy on Spielrein shortly after the First World War. Spielrein, who later became a psychoanalyst herself, becomes a forbidden object of desire that is too much for Jung to resist, resulting in an affair. Jung is therefore a quintessential protagonist for Cronenberg.  In his 2001 book The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, William Beard describes Cronenberg’s dominant theme from Videodrome (1983) onwards as a focus on ‘a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go.’ Jung is that transgressive creator and the realm where nobody else wishes to go, which is both hidden and repressed, is the unconscious mind of Spielrein.

While very much a dialogue-heavy historical film, all the recognisable elements of Cronenberg’s preoccupations can be found in A Dangerous Method. Given Cronenberg’s previous exploration of psychoanalytic concepts such as the monstrous feminine as defined by patriarchal culture, it could almost be argued that A Dangerous Method is the most obviously Cronenbergian film to date, despite the absence of visceral bodily horror that so defined his earlier films. In place of abject gore is Knightley’s portrayal early in the film of Spielrein suffering from hysteria, which has resulted from her intense self-loathing and guilt towards her own sexuality. Just as psychological conditions manifested physically in films such as The Brood (1979), Spielrein’s inner torment spills out into her body as she sits close to the centre of frame, almost looking at the audience, and contorts and writhes while Jung talks with her. Knightley is all chin and forehead, at times threatening to stab the audience with her face in a truly confronting and remarkable series of scenes.

Stylistically the film begins with a sense of melodramatic urgency to mimic Spielrein’s distressed state of mind. The music is full of dramatic flourishes as she is rushed into hospital by horse and carriage. As Jung’s methods take hold the film calms right down into the clinical style that is so common in Cronenberg’s films. The cinematography is crisp and in deep focus, carefully composed close-ups lovingly portray the different apparatus used in Jung’s tests and white dominates every scene. The hospital walls are white, the patients are dressed in white, Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) dresses in white and all the bed sheets are white. The use of white is not only clinical, but it suggests Jung’s detachment from not only his family and work – he by contrast always dressed in black – but from his own sexuality, despite being part of a new psychosis treatment that involves talking explicitly about the sexuality of others. We never see any sense of true physical or emotional affection between Jung and Emma, and even the birth of his child is deliberately kept off screen with the baby first appearing in the film not being nursed by Jung or Emma, but by an anonymous nurse.

The main source of tension in A Dangerous Method is Jung having serious doubts about his view of sex as a somewhat functionary act, needing to be controlled and at best something that can simply be described as ‘tender’ between man and wife. Continuing Beard’s arguments about the characteristics of Cronenberg’s protagonists from Videodrome onwards, Jung desires a transgressive transformation that will ultimately prove to be destructive, although in the case of the far more subdued A Dangerous Method, melancholia is the price Jung plays rather than literal obliteration. The transformation is to become somebody who indulges in their sexual whims to the extent that it means the ultimate betrayal of the doctor/patient relationship.

One trigger for Jung’s transgression is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who is the other extreme to Jung in terms of advocating indulging in every sexual desire possible and therefore both horrifies and fascinates Jung. Then there is Spielrein, the closest thing A Dangerous Method has to a monstrous feminine, whose passions twice spill blood into the pristine white colour scheme of the film and who becomes the figure that Jung spills his anxieties onto. Earlier in the film while Jung is treating Spielrein, they walk across a bridge high above a wild forest, suggesting an attempt to cross the divide between the conscious and unconscious mind. Later in the film they are depicted together adrift in a lake in a boat with suitably red sails, as if now lost together in the unconscious.

The final trigger for Jung’s transgression is his desire to undermine Freud, his father-figure type mentor whose methods he deviates from in classic Oedipal defiance. (And the Oedipal dynamic is completed by Spielrein who is first the object of Jung’s forbidden desire and then becomes a symbolic maternal figure after she aligns with Freud). Freud is differentiated from Jung in numerous ways including class, wealth and race, but it is once again the depiction of the spaces Freud occupies that combines the most interesting comparisons. While Jung’s offices and home are sparse and controlled environments, Freud works in a warmly lit cramped office that is filled with books, cultural artefacts and photos. Jung floats at sea or stands above a forest, while Freud walks through an elaborately manicured garden that allows for abstraction without loosing its sense of order and control. A statue of a sphinx stands in the garden, yet another reminder of the prevailing imagery of the monstrous feminine in folklore, mythology and psychoanalysis. Jung smokes a pipe, which requires careful preparation to arrange the tobacco in a concealed space to be respectfully enjoyed. Freud smokes a… does it even need to be written out?

A Dangerous Method is a puzzling film as despite being directly about psychoanalysis, it’s the most surface level of all of Cronenberg’s films. Rather than delving into the murky depths of the human mind, A Dangerous Method is more an opportunity for Cronenberg to stage an extended dialogue between historical figures whose work clearly means a lot to him. This is nonetheless compelling cinema, especially for audiences resigned to the fact that more questions are going to be asked rather than answered. Is sex an act of liberation, denial of the self or surrender? Strong arguments are put up in all instances and like all matters of sexuality, it seems the ones who are least comfortable with their own are the ones who make the most fuss about it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012