SWEET STENCH OF HUMAN

 

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Two days ago I went to see, for the second time, the new David Cronenberg film Cosmopolis. It is a work, for me, of insidious, glacial beauty matched perfectly to my own visual aesthetic, and it had been surreptiously replaying itself in my mind ever since the first time I saw it in Ginza three weeks ago. It was still on in Shinjuku so I found had to go and see it again.

 

I write about Cosmopolis here because it strikes me as being one of the olfactively sensitive films I have seen. In fact, smell, and the bodied, fleshed realness of the human odour seem to be one of the film’s subcutaneous themes, embedded in its dark, redolent celluloid. It is a cold film, certainly, but sensuous, and one that got under my skin.

 

As the main protagonist, Eric Packer (Robert Pattison), a young self-made multi-billionaire in the finance world whose company is suddenly bleeding money on yuan speculation gone awry, crosses New York in his white, gleaming, high-tech stretch limousine (because, on a whim, he decides that “we need a hair cut”), he encounters various people from his sealed, cut-off world who are called to his car, spout insider information to him like automatons, self-absorbed oracles in a world that is quickly losing all meaning: beyond the bullet-proofed windows the cold, angry city threatens to engulf them and his security warn of a ‘credible threat’ on his life; anti-capitalist anarchists erupt in fury on the streets, the president of the IMF is assassinated on live TV, and figures from his disastrous financial losses flow endlessly on the car’s blue computer screens like thoughts in a brain; the armour-plated, sound-proofed, cork-lined car gliding slowly, imperiously through the streets.

The metal, glass and chromium of the monitors, the immaculate steel carapace of the limousine’s shining exoskeleton may all be conspicuously odourless, but as the film progresses, Packer, who begins the film spruced, impeccably, in his slim black Gucci suit and fitted white shirt (the ‘odour of sanctity’ of the privileged, obscenely rich world in which he lives very much intact), he begins to corrupt his hygiene with sexual encounters (one with art dealer Juliette Binoche inside the car), the stink of booze, and, bizarrely, a prostate examination by a doctor held while he is mid-business conference with one of his advisors, she herself rank and sweaty from a day of jogging and last minute panics to save the company’s skin. The smell of clammy human corporality is almost eerie in these scenes, and is depicted in almost angelical hypercontrast to the scenes featuring Packer’s wife (Sarah Gadon), a detached, minted member of the super-elite, who seems almost instead to represent cleanly perfection: a paragon of Caucasian beauty; poreless, with the flaxen, unattainable hair of the Upper East Side déesse, almost not of this world (because she isn’t).

 

 

 

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Through cinematographer Peter Suschitsky’s beautifully pellucid camera work we can almost smell her smellessness when the couple, like flawless extraterrestrials, meet in a diner among the lesser mortals of the metropolis, the camera honing in on each blonde hair (the light in this film, the extreme resolution of each image, is, on the big screen, really quite something). She is untouchable, smells of nothing, lies beyond his reach.

 

Recently married, the couple have had no intimate relations it seems (a situation Packer is most eager to rectify), yet every time they meet during this fateful day the smell difference between them seems only to intensify and make this possibility ever more remote (it is eventually the deciding factor; the smell of his lust and indiscretions the key in severing the union). Her porcelain aura becomes more impenetrable the more his becomes more rank and sweat-suffused : “You reek of sexual discharge” she tells him, and we know by looking at him that he does. Whether Packer takes a shower at any point in the day is unclear (there is a tryst at a hotel with his female body guard en route which would make this a possibility but it somehow seems unlikely), but Cronenberg ups the bodily awareness by also having him relieve himself in the limousine; we see on his skin the clammy, rising sweat of fear (he is threatened with assassination), can smell his loosening.

 

 

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Ironically, the worse this billionaire’s monetary situation becomes, the further he hurtles towards self-destruction, masochism, and financial destitution, the more he seems to feel liberated, and human. And as a consequence, in leaving his steam-pressed, odour-free cocoon and getting himself dirty in the grunginess of the soft-tissued world outside, smell, the natural excretions, become defining.

 

This is made explicit in the somewhat histrionic final scenes of the film where he comes face to face, in a foul, derelict building, with his would-be assassin, a more than disgruntled former employee who can no longer function in the ‘real’ world of business not only because he has come to hate everything it represents for him but because he does, as he says, “stink” ( “smell me“, replies Packer, in a moment of peculiar male bonding).

 

 

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And we believe it. Played by Paul Giametti, Benno Levin, is the very embodiment of malodour. We can smell him from our seats as he scuttles, troll-like, fetid, with a damp, dirty towel over his head, in a cat and mouse game with his former boss, yet the frank exchanges the two have are the most real in the film.  That Packer should discover his own humanity in his own personal stench this way struck me as very intriguing in a film that is not overtly about smell  – the (theoretically) fragrance-drenched cinematic adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’, for example, was much less palpably scented than this strange and perverse film, which, despite its pretences, was highly enjoyable.

 

 

I emphatically can’t recommend Cosmopolis to you outright, however, much as I loved it myself. Most people will, I think, find the film almost unbearably pretentious: for the arch, purposefully unnatural dialogue – often quoted verbatim from the (slated) futuristic novel by Don Delillo – the ‘lack of plot’, the portentous acting, and the general, slow, piquant artfulness of the whole; it was not very well-liked at Cannes last year and has had some disastrous reviews; but for me it was a quietly euphoric experience, a hypnotic slow burn, and very erotic.  The nubile flesh of Robert Pattison (who, crucially, had no smell at all as vampire Edward Cullen, in the Twilight Series, making him a compelling casting choice) is effulgent, real. Not buffed up and muscularized in the usual Hollywood narcissistic, self-conscious way, but soft-skinned,  porous.  Hard, callous, but vulnerable. Human, beautiful; the contrast with his fleshly descent into self-realization and the delectable glow of the cold, alienating landscape he inhabits, amounting, for me, to a strange, animalistic, and mesmerizing cinematic perfume. 

 

 

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47 Comments

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47 responses to “SWEET STENCH OF HUMAN

  1. ninakane1

    Utterly brilliant. Utterly.

    • Really?

      I was nervous about this one, and hoping you would chime up about the haptic cinema and so on. Glad it wasn’t a pile of shit; I have never written a film review before, though it is more about what I could smell, or thought I could…I always can in films, but in this one particularly.

      Let the dialogue commence!

      • Absolutely! You must do more! Haptic viewing came to mind instantly, but I don’t have time to write on it too much now. Will do when thesis done. Go for it. xx

      • It really is a brilliant way of reading film, seriously please do more. What do Brian de Palma’s smell of? re: the haptic – relates to touch, but smell is a form of touching I think. If you fancy a theoretical read, can recommend ‘The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience’ by Jennifer M Barker and either ‘The Skin of the Film’ or ‘Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media’ by Laura U Marks. I find both these writers fascinating on the subject. I’m trying to think of films that may have a smell – for some reasons films tend to bring taste to mind for me…Desperately Seeking Susan I reckon would smell of oud and rose musk- especially for the bit where Madonna dries her hairy armpits in the public loos…. and something a little trashy chic – for some reason I’m thinking Miss Dior Cherie. Wish You Were Here – I think I’ve said before actually….Harajuku Lovers’ Love….Don’t Look Now….definitely something with violet and vetiver in…will think more on’t inbetween thesis-scribbling….But this review of the film you have written here is exquisite darling. Absolutely brilliant. More please xx

    • Rambo films – faux-leather car seats and pine air freshener dangling from little cardboard Christmas trees under the driver’s mirror…Midnight Cowboy – leather boots n bacon, long, warm hair on a hot day…The Sound of Music…starch and almond paste….?

      • ninakane1

        Petit dabbling and pensees bubbling to the surface….but Neil, write some more, please!

      • Ooh what about Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons? I bet there’d be different extremes of smells in that….I’m already getting a sort of journey of them coming to mind…Neil! My brain’s suddenly completely buzzing…Film blog NOW Mr Chapman! x

      • You’re joking, after all the perfectly pinpointed things you have written here? (I agree about Desperately Seeking Susan especially, and A Dangerous Method….such a clinical film: Cosmopolis is better I think…)

        Actually, I don’t think I could write about cinema properly, somehow, but it is a subject that fascinates me as much as perfume does. Just for some reason the words flow out about scent…When I read my favourite cinema critics such as Manohla Dargis of The New York Times I know instinctively I could never do it. She is amazing, and a joy to read.

        With the best perfume writers I can feel envy, but it feels less out of reach.

      • You’re right. It’s all here in the Narcissus, and will come in its own perfumic and beautiful flow. xx

      • brie

        Nina-
        When you get done with your thesis I think it is YOU who should write a post on films and perfume pairings…you have done it so brilliantly in all of your comments….what sayest thou, Monsieur Chapman? Nina as a contributor to the Black Naricissus? I for one would love this!

  2. Neil, your writing is simply amazing. What a riveting and compelling piece!
    I am truly in awe of you.

  3. brie

    Neil-
    Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant….and now I want to see this movie….another hidden talent…you are a film critic!!!! Get cracking on writing that book, my friend! Truly!

    • No, DON”T go and see this film. You will hate it!

      That is why I wrote the caveat at the end. Duncan and I were just talking about it on the balcony, about its flaws: how the theatrical dialogue often doesn’t work, and so on.

      I am just….how can I say, very visual/atmosphere oriented (and maybe you are too..do you like Cronenberg?) His films are beautifully dead somehow…

      • brie

        Am not familiar with Cronenberg…soon to be rectified…merci, for the suggestion!

      • ninakane1

        Beautifully dead is spot-on where Cronenburg’s concerned….seductive aesthetic, but oh so white and cold – I bet his hands are thin, silky soft and pale…but don’t get me and D on this topic! We’ve already had text and facebook argey-bargey at length on ce sujet….

    • ninakane1

      A Dangerous Method….Rose Water and white vodka for Keira Knightley with a dash of black pepper for the spanking scene, and Francis Kurkdjan A Part of Me for the lush cool scenery…

  4. Tora

    Incredible review!! I can easily overlook the flaws of plot and dialogue in favor of the ‘feel’ of a movie. The idea of watching Mr. Pattison slowly go from impeccable to raunchy is quite appealing. Well Done, Neil. Your writing is really riveting! Have you seen ‘I Am Love’ with Tilda Swinton?

  5. Lilybelle

    That one is not on my list of “must sees” – I’ll trust your recommendation to not see it! I loved your reivew of it, however. It’s interesting, now that i think about it, how we get a sense of odor while watching films, even subliminally if not consciously. I never thought about it before, but it will be stuck in my mind now!

    • brie

      Interestingly enough, Lilybelle, I will sometimes hear a song and my mind instantly makes a perfume connection…happens quite often with Coldplay … and recently with vintage Ivoire and One Republic’s Counting Stars. I know Neil does the same.

      • Lilybelle

        I don’t do that with songs per se, but fragrances and music are both composed – with discordant or harmonious notes – so that connection is obvious. I see colors and sense textures with fragrances, often get visual images of places, and sometimes sounds, but not songs that I can recall. 🙂

  6. Fantastic. I usually avoid anything with any cast-member of Twilight, but you have changed my mind. And now I have to watch this thing 🙂

    • Don’t listen to me…..it is kind of terrible in many ways; REALLY unnatural…but I did totally enjoy it I have to say!

      • We all have movies like that. Movies that we are fascinated by while knowing full well that they are terrible. For example, Gattaca is absolutely awful, but I will watch it mesmerized.

        It’s also a strangely antiseptic movie as well . . .

  7. I really enjoyed your take on this movie, even though from everything I read it isn’t something I would enjoy watching.
    But you made a compeling case for it, that’s for sure. 🙂

    • I think this is a very sane and lucid response, and thanks for saying so. Not that I am for one second comparing myself to a real cinema critic, I really enjoyed A O Scott’s review of Lincoln, knowing that I couldn’t possibly bear to watch it. I love the New York Times critics: Manohla Dargis has very similar taste to me and writes exquisite reviews: Mr A O is equally good but he likes more sentimental and ‘human driven’ things than I do, and yet I enjoy his reviews at least as much. The differences between us make his arguments even more interesting in a way. It is the same with perfume as well….

  8. Dearest Ginza
    After mixed reviews, I had thought to give this one a miss.
    Looks like I will have to catch it at The Prince Charles, where it will inevitably end up as part of a triple bill one day.
    Thank you for venturing into cinema…
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  9. Rafael

    This review reminded me of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Where the hell are you? TWO days without a post? Sniff.

  10. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    I have just re-watched this upstairs….

    Delighted that Julianne Moore won the Best Actress at Cannes for David Cronenberg’s Map To The Stars……….I cannot W A I T to see it.

  11. Renee Stout

    Amazing! I could see and smell every scene you described. This perfectly captures American culture where there seems to be a fear of anything that smells remotely…human.

    • Well this film is extremely dystopian, highly stylized (or ‘pretentious’ is the word most people would choose), but it also doesn’t seem impossible: just the patterns of society we have now with the gaps between rich and poor, only worse.

      And there is something very beautiful about the soft, sweaty tissue of humans in relation to the gleaming hard perfection of technology..

      This was a strange piece, but I had to write it.

  12. A very interesting review and also the comments to it!

  13. I need to see this movie now. Would love to smell Robert Pattinsons neck, but he would probably just reek of cigarette smoke; he is quite the chain smoker I have read.

    • Be warned: it REALLY is affected (deliberately so). Yesterday I was thinking, wow, if you hated the dialogue and purposeful distancing, you would find it unbearable to watch. In my case, I love it. And he is GORGEOUS in it. His smell in it fascinates me.

      Go and watch it!!

    • What is fascinating is that he looks as if he stinks in it, and yet you want to smell him anyway, in that beautiful, crisp white shirt…

  14. theasceticlibertine

    I’m one of the weirdos that liked this movie. I thought it worked more than it didn’t, and having read/done avant-garde plays I didn’t think the rigid, stylized dialogue was a problem. I thought it functioned really well within the world Cronenberg sets up for us. I started to read the book because I couldn’t get the film out of my head but haven’t finished it yet. Anyway, brilliant review, relating it to smell.

    • Thanks. I mean I love this film uninhibitedly almost, but people tell me I have a persuasive way with words and I thought it merited a warning because I can imagine many readers HATING it. Personally, stylized often really works, especially in a Cronenberg context, as you say.

  15. Gosh, I gave this movie (not a film…) one of my lowest IMDB ratings ever–a 1 out of 10! Whoops! Maybe I should try again??? 😉

    Here’s what I wrote (along with my rating of 1 (out of 10):

    “*Is it legal to steal the ending of The Sopranos?*
    (11 May 2013 – 2 out of 3 users found this review helpful.)

    Adding insult to nearly two hours of viewing injury, this film finishes by plagiarizing the ending of The Sopranos! How is this possible?

    This film was so bad that I had to divide it in two, and even then it was sheer torture to watch. I was counting the minutes to the end, constantly glancing at the meter on my DVD player.

    What in the world was Juliette Binoche thinking when she attached her name (and body–and huffing and puffing) to this piece of junk? Surely she cannot be that desperate for money? I know that it is tough for middle-aged women in Hollywood, but has she no self-respect whatsoever?

    Two, count them two, totally gratuitous sex scenes, dozens of drone conversations which never touch on any topics of interest and only pretend to be profound. A murder, a self-mutilation, and a Stepford wife for the twenty-first century. None of this adds up to art. This is the filmic equivalent of kitsch.

    I can only question the intelligence of anyone who raves about this film. Does anyone really? Or were the positive reviews all written by shills?”

    ————————–

    So, needless to say, I disagree. But I enjoyed your review all the same!

    • As I enjoy what you wrote. But I know that different people have different sensibilities (although I do love, LOVE the Sopranos)

      I imagine we have totally different taste, and that is that. I honestly think people are born this way, with certain fibres and cables in their brains that transport the light to them. I would imagine that if you wrote your top 5 films I would despise them, but I would be utterly delighted to be proven otherwise.

      Go on: do it

      • What a wonderful reply–thank you for the invitation. I agree with you 100% about the question of taste… To be honest, I have a difficult time with lists, in general, because I feel that they are mood and weather dependent, but here goes:

        The Third Man
        Le chagrin et la pitie
        The Godfather, parts 1 & 2 (a unit!–as for part 3: fuhgeddaboutit!)
        The Man with a Movie Camera
        The Heiress
        Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon)
        Sans Soleil (you’re probably the only other person around these parts who has even heard of this film…)

        okay, that’s seven… whoops…

        Now, I’d better submit this before I change my mind! 😉

        Thanks for being, well, intelligent!!!!! It’s a pleasure interacting with someone like you!

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