CANNES, France - Going back to what he does best, David Cronenberg takes a visceral day-trip inside the cushioned limousine of a tycoon who cares little for the bloody, populist riots that explode outside his car in "Cosmopolis."
All the young multi-billionaire Eric Packer — played by a steely-eyed Robert Pattinson — wants is a haircut.
Packer spends the entire film, which premiered Friday in Cannes, crossing town to get one but is waylaid when the U.S. president's visit to the city causes traffic chaos. Yet when he eventually makes it to the barber, his haircut is interrupted and he leaves in futility, half-shaven.
For Cronenberg, a master of provocation, the significance of this probably goes beyond a debate on the quality of haircuts at barber shops — though judging by Pattinson's slick red-carpet hair, it is probable he opted for a stylist.
In the surreal "Cosmopolis," — full of long, introspective dialogue — the portrayal of cold, moneyed arrogance is a warning against the perceived greed of current times.
The oversexed, 28-year-old Packer has made his billions as an asset manager in a dystopian Manhattan and is so self-obsessed he barely registers the violent protests against capitalism around him. The only time Packer seems worried is after a doctor tells him, in one of the movie's many comic moments, that he has an "asymmetrical prostate" — with prostate-gazing an obvious synonym for navel-gazing.
Pattison — who is most famous for playing a vampire in the teen "Twilight" series — said he was nervous about the complex role.
"I spent two weeks in my hotel room worrying," he said, joking that "actors aren't meant to be intelligent."
But the ego and cynicism stretch beyond his character and infect the whole landscape.
The film starts with a quote: "a rat becomes the unit of currency," that turns out to be true for the movie's characters, who all seem to be part of a individualistic "rat race" each struggling to get his or her 15 minutes of fame.
The last scene sees a claustrophobic 22-minute face-off between Packer and a crazed man trying to assassinate him, played with standout brilliance by Paul Giamatti. The two talk on a couch, separated by a screen that Cronenberg said conjures up images of a Catholic confessional, exploring how selfish the world is.
Pattinson, whose past public appearances have caused mobs of teens to swoon, said he identified with the role, joking that he sometimes thinks "people are trying to kill me."
The film was based on a 2003 book by Don DeLillo, who was at the Cannes Film Festival alongside Cronenberg and said the film's dialogue was directly lifted from the novel. Still, at many points, the drawn-out dialogue seemed to have more elements of a play and the movie dragged.
At the post-screening press conference, Cronenberg justified with aplomb the film's introspective qualities. "For me, the essence of cinema is a person, a face, speaking."
Pattinson said he loves Cronenberg's other films — which include the 2011 "A Dangerous Method" — but the Canadian director said "I always had the feeling he'd never seen any of my movies."
The film has drawn inevitable comparisons to current financial woes and the timeless themes of greed vs. poverty and populist anger, but Cronenberg said any link to current affairs was accidental. Still, the shooting did coincide with global anti-capitalist protests that began in late 2011.
"(After filming) in the evenings, to read about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, it seemed at points that we were working more on a documentary," he said.
DeLillo said he wrote "Cosmopolis" after being struck by the massive gap between rich and poor in Manhattan.
"New York City streets at the turn of the century seemed suddenly filled up with white stretch limousines," he said.
People come to Cannes to dream, and this gritty, cynical film was seen by some Cannes revelers as a downer. So where was the hope?
"The hope is embodied in the fact that the movie got made in the first place," Cronenberg said with a dry smile. "It's not an easy movie to get financed. In Hollywood, $200 million is spent on movies that are extremely conservative, not-edgy. The hope is in the art."