Rich People Should Be More Powerful (in Movies)

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Cosmopolis paints a comforting but false portrait of a one-percenter's spectacular downfall.

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Decadence is entertaining. You get sex, you get violence, you get sordid, shocking details, immorality, and chaos. And, at the same time, art that depicts decadence gets built-in relevance and profundity as it takes a courageous stance against all of the above. Who can resist such a delicious blend of exploitation and finger-wagging; of rolling in muck and decrying it?

The difference between the rich and the poor is not that the rich have more vices. The difference is that the rich can indulge their vices without anything happening to them.

Not David Cronenberg, anyway. Cronenberg has been a gourmand of the double pleasures of decadence since early films like Shivers, in which he gleefully tossed aphrodisiac slugs into a gleaming new high rise, reveling in and warning against the lust undermining the integrity of the immaculate bourgeoisie. His most recent effort, Cosmopolis, based on the Don DeLillo novel, is less forthright and substantially less enjoyable, but the same general themes are recognizably in place.

Young multi-billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) starts out slick and keen and in control. Over the course of a surreally extended limo trip across a gridlocked Manhattan to go to his barber, he loses his fortune and his wife and reveals himself to be...well, decadent. He has sex with two women, hits on a couple of others, indulges in random acts of violence, and is so afraid of death that he gets daily house calls (or car calls) from his doctor. Also, he lines his limo with cork so he can be like Proust, has an employee whose job is to quote theory at him, and slings profound non sequitors like he's acting in an art film ("You're forcing me to be reasonable. I don't like that.") He is a portrait of our corporate overlords as effete princelings, only a car-ride away from self-destructing in a flash of banal desire, petulant overreach, and wounded ego.

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In this context, the casting of Robert Pattinson as Packer is a stroke of brilliance. As the creators of Twilight recognized to their great financial fortune, Pattinson's languid features, expressive eyebrows, and wounded eyes perfectly convey both sensual knowledge and vulnerability—he's decadent nobility personified.

Cronenberg would, of course, like his viewers to believe that he is exploiting Pattinson's beauty for more elevated high-art ends than Twilight was. And it's certainly true that Cosmopolis uses its stars' broody looks as a self-conscious trope. At one point Pattinson's hit in the face with a pie, and his heartthrob visage is marred much as his gleaming white limo was defaced by a fleeting anarchist street riot. In another scene (probably the best of the film), Packer undergoes a lengthy rectal exam in his limo while a female employee sits in front of him clutching and mangling her water bottle. It's difficult not to see this as a deliberate parody of Pattinson-as-sex -symbol—after all, what rabid Twilight fan wouldn't start spasming if a naked Edward were anally violated right in front of her?

Cosmopolis, then, is self-reflective about its star-power and its sex—not to mention about its violence, as in one sequence where a character stalking Pattinson admits he's not enough of a man to know the names of all the attachments on his gun.

But does slowing the tropes down and putting them in quotes really change their meaning all that much? After all, the murders that show the amorality of the ruling class work much the same way in Cosmopolis as in The Hunger Games. Similarly, the descent into the abyss in Cronenberg's film is more stylized and less pulpy than the descent into the abyss in Dark Knight Rises, but I don't know that the underlying message is ultimately all that different. In both, the weakness and indecision of the billionaire dilettantes leads to personal tragedy and social chaos. Dark Knight Rises ends, of course, with Batman victorious and all right with the world. But then, Cosmopolis ends with Cronenberg ambiguously indicting us for wanting to see Pattinson's character offed. The first is a predictable genre cop out—and the second is a predictable art-film cop out.

Why do these films end so half-assedly? The answer, I think, is decadence itself, and the way it has been misunderstood. The problem with our oligarchs is not that they're less moral and more self-centered and weirder than everyone else. The problem is that they have too much money. The difference between the rich and the poor is not that the rich have more vices. The difference is that the rich can indulge their vices, and get caught indulging their vices, without anything happening to them. Moreover, the fact that they have gobs of money doesn't make them prey to weakness and collapse. It insulates them from it. Wealth reduces risk; it doesn't increase it. The lives of the rich are grotesquely, unjustly, unconscionably boring.

Of course, having a billionaire drive crosstown while nothing happens to him wouldn't be much of a story. The demands of narrative—even of distanced, ironic, slow-moving art narrative—lead filmmakers to misrepresent the nature of economic class. It would not be possible for someone as wealthy and powerful as Eric Packer is to lose everything over the course of a day. Pretending that it would is not a metaphorical revelation of our decadent cultural anomie. It's simply a lie—or, if you prefer, a comforting fiction. Capitalism is bleaker than Cosmopolis, not least because it's less fun to watch.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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