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David Cronenberg is often the kind of director who makes art when he thinks he’s going mainstream (A Dangerous Method, The Fly) and winds up with a crock when he thinks he’s making art (the inexplicable 1996 Cannes Special Jury Prize winner Crash). Cosmopolis, which premiered this morning, may star the Most Coveted Sexy Franchise Heartthrob in the Universe, Robert Pattinson, but it is nevertheless in the icy, stultifying tradition of such hermetically sealed Cronenberg duds as M. Butterfly and Videodrome. For most of this one, we’re sealed in a white stretch limousine, the interiors of which Cronenberg shoots from symmetrical low angles, so that it feels as if we’re caught inside a black-leather rectangular room. Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire assets manager who orders his chauffeur to take him across Manhattan for a haircut. He stops and gets out for occasional meals in upscale coffee shops, but mostly, seated in his luxe chamber of a car, he hectors an underling (Jay Baruchel), has sex with one of his mistresses (Juliette Binoche), and holds court on the brave new world of cyber-capitalism, with its liquidly opaque digital ethereality and indomitable new breed of global-transactional high flier.

Eric, talking and talking, has the robotic assurance of a man who transcends mere human relationships through power. Yet I’m not sure if you could describe the thoughts that tumble out of his mouth as “dialogue.” Cosmopolis was adapted from a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, and though the book, if accurately represented by the movie (I haven’t read it), seems to have been ahead of the curve, it still comes off as an elaborate, overheated lecture that applies mountains of jargon and a dystopian “vision” — think William Burroughs for the age of derivatives — to a lot of things that most of us, by now, have heard a lot of times. Like the fact that technology has made money, more than ever, a cosmos of its own. Or that within that cosmos, a deeply amoral elite — the one percent of the one percent — play and kill and invent their own rules. Or the fact that American capitalism has entered a Rome-is-burning phase in which the system has begun to eat its young.

Cronenberg seems to be trying for a sci-fi poetic vision of the new financial power brokers and the slow-motion monetary nervous breakdown that they helped to create and are still feeding off of. Yet he’s so possessed by the stark significance of these themes that he hasn’t made Cosmopolis into a movie. It is, rather, a parade of hollow didactic encounters — Eric giving the cold shoulder to his lacquered doll of a wife (Sarah Gadon), who he coincidentally pulls up next to when she’s riding in a cab (a scene as preposterous as anything in Eyes Wide Shut); Eric confessing to his “theory consultant” (Samantha Morton) that he has lost many millions that morning in the yuan market, and may in fact have leveraged himself into oblivion; Eric insisting on his right to get a haircut wherever he wants, even if the U.S. president is in town, is clogging up midtown traffic — and may even be the target of a hit! And Eric, yes, may be an assassin’s target too.

Are you excited yet? Cosmopolis includes its own version of the Occupy hordes: scruffy, vengeful protesters who run around the streets, and into restaurants, brandishing the bodies of dead rats. One of the film’s ideas is that rats have become the new currency — and sorry, that sounds like a devastating metaphor for something or other, but I still don’t know what it means. Robert Pattinson, pale and predatory even without his pasty-white vampire makeup, delivers his frigid pensées with rhythmic confidence, but he’s not playing a character, he’s playing an abstraction — the dapper gazillionaire hotshot who flies too close to the sun, but he likes it up there, so f— you! In the last act, he finally has a meeting with a man he can’t control, the one who may be trying to kill him — played, with the only semblance of human spontaneity in the movie, by Paul Giamatti. But who cares what happens? Cronenberg has already murdered his protagonist. Or, at least, he has killed off any shred of life in him from the inside.

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The annual chatter here among media and industry types over who we think is going to win the Palme d’Or fuses a lot of elements. It’s about aesthetic judgment, it’s about whose turn it is to win (the elite version of the “It’s time!” argument that can power the Oscars), it’s about the gossipy politics of who’s on the jury and — uniquely important at Cannes — who’s the head of the jury, a figure it’s commonly assumed holds the sway of a highly feared university department head. (In this case, it’s the maverick Italian director Nanni Moretti.) This year, however, the highbrow horse race may be more interesting than usual, and for a perverse reason: The movie that more or less everyone at Cannes, including me — and, I’m guessing, most of the jury members — believes to be head and shoulders above every other film in competition is Michael Haneke’s stirring, starkly honest drama of old age, Amour. Here’s the rub: Haneke won the Palme d’Or just three years ago, for The White Ribbon, his eccentric pre-World War I fusion of an Ingmar Bergman movie and Village of the Damned. It seems a little soon for him to win again.

Had The White Ribbon not won the Palme d’Or (and personally, I don’t think it deserved to), this wouldn’t even be a conversation. It would, for real, be Michael Haneke’s time, and that would be that. But since he won so recently, all the speculation is about which of the comparatively undeserving other films could be, in effect, a respectable replacement winner. Some think that it might be Cristian Mungiu’s grandiloquently austere Romanian exorcism movie, Beyond the Hills, but he won only two years before Haneke (in 2007), so I think: Maybe not. One wag I talked to floated On the Road as a possible winner, and though a lot of people, like me, aren’t that wild about it, it certainly has the big canvas, and the effusive romantic left-wing bohemian cred, to make the members of a Cannes jury feel good about themselves.

But here’s a wild card — and a karmic conspiracy theory to go along with it. This morning, just about everyone who saw Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis had to take note of a highly catchy and bizarre coincidence: It’s the second film of the festival, after Leos Carax’s crazy-compelling Holy Motors, in which the main character spends the entire film getting driven around a metropolis in a white stretch limo. The effect of this coincidence is to make the white-stretch-limo odyssey suddenly seem a lot less fluky and a lot more…iconic. And it’s exactly that iconic quality that can up the presence and prestige of a movie like Holy Motors, which is just weird and daring and Dada enough to qualify as a credible Palme d’Or long shot. So here’s my prediction: If Amour doesn’t win, then Holy Motors takes the Palme d’Or. Which should make for quite a celebratory limo ride.

Owen’s other posts from Cannes:

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