Road to Nowhere

In the films Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, David Cronenberg and Leos Carax reinvent the metaphor of the road.

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Perhaps no metaphor saturates language more than the one that equates life with a journey down a long, winding lane. Frost has his forked path, Whitman his “Song of the Open Road.” Troubadours — from Springsteen to Willie to Kanye — march along with lyrics aimed to chauffeur listeners down Thunder Road or to unfurl “the coldest story ever told/ somewhere far along this road.” We even adopt such symbolism in everyday conversation. We seek direction, cross a bridge to make a decision, move on from failure, stand at the crossroads of change, and run into the speed bumps of life. We are so ensnared with this metaphor that it has turned into a cliché. Imagine a framed picture — maybe a gravel road licking horizon’s edge, a toddler standing in the foreground — hung in a sterile office, right next to posters of snow-capped mountains spouting inspirational quips about teamwork.

David Cronenberg and Leos Carax, both extraordinary filmmakers, understand the overload of this tired chestnut. And yet, recent films by the duo — Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and Carax’s Holy Motors, available now through most streaming services — not only embrace the road metaphor, but spin it in new and curious ways.

The two stories share a similar premise: a man, in a customized limousine, travels around a city, making stops here and there. Cronenberg’s hero is an asset manager betting on speculative information, while Carax frames his tale around an actor. And these professions draw out the visual and experiential palette of each film. Cronenberg, true to form, focuses on the cold, practically robotic connection between man and life, while Carax finds a dark, absurdist humor in his thespian’s odyssey across the streets of Paris.

In Cosmopolis, one sees the nod to the road metaphor when Robert Pattinson’s character, Eric Parker, meets his wife three times over the course of his day. At breakfast, their connection feels true — as true as Cronenberg allows, at least — yet by the time they find themselves alone in a cocktail lounge come evening, they’ve grown distant. “As a couple, as a marriage, I think we’re done, aren’t we?” she asks, condensing an entire relationship into an eight-hour period, spread along a series of metropolitan streets.

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Eric also transforms from a young, ambitious, challenging tycoon to a disconnected, homicidal fiend during this day. He propels the narrative by setting off on a cross-city drive simply to get a haircut, and while this mission is eventually consummated, the journey itself resembles the demands of a spoiled child. Though staff members attempt to change Eric’s mind, he remains steadfast in his pursuit, ignoring the fact that the President of the United States is in town and traffic is horrible. Eric’s petition is frivolous. Still, he evolves during this trek, thanks to several elements: his fortune — tied to the stock market — slowly erodes; a doctor tells him he has an asymmetrical prostate; and an assassin looks to put a bullet between his eyes. The stress rapidly ages Eric, to the point where the 28-year-old takes on the cantankerous language of a much older man. As night falls, he sits in a balcony with a member of his entourage, looking down over a rave, and mutters, “Kids.” And when questioned about pain, he answers, “There’s pain enough for everybody now,” a statement that would seem foreign spilling from the tycoon in the film’s opening moments.

Ultimately, what makes Cronenberg’s film — and its dive into the road metaphor — so very interesting is the sterile nature in which the director and his actors handle DeLillo’s narrative. As Eric’s limousine is a sleek, hygienic machine, so too are the performances by Cosmopolis’s cast. There’s a blank, almost sleepy, stage-like quality to most of the characters, who speak in monotone, yet discuss deep, difficult topics. They live entire lives between sunrise and sunset, yet never break away from their mannered nature. The juxtaposition is strange, at first, yet acts as a comment on the clichéd road trip trope: another man, another road, another lesson learned.

Like Cosmopolis, Holy Motors crafts scenes of youthful exuberance and elder tepidness for Denis Lavant’s Mr. Oscar to explore. What’s interesting, though, is the nonlinear fashion in which these scenes develop. Oscar, physically transforming via costumes and makeup, starts the film as a middle-aged businessman, only to then immediately change into a hunched crone, begging for money. This fluctuation through the stages of life continues as he travels from location to location: a stopover in a motion capture studio suggests the moment of conception and creation, while a musical interlude late in the film provides a glimpse at lost love. Oscar even dies several times while realizing his daily appointments — through brutal violence and natural causes — only to pop up and return to his limo, motoring off to the next destination.

The temporary nature of his exploits not only winks at the fleeting nature of life, perhaps the insignificance of the individual in a world of individuals, but also at the artificiality of filmmaking. Carax fills the screen with a spectrum of cinematic nuggets — from the oddball Mr. Merde, to Pixar-ish talking vehicles, to Edith Scob donning her famous Eyes Without a Face mask — making Holy Motors as much about the life of film as the life of man.

Still, even when looking at both of these films through the lens of metaphor, there exists a mountain of unexplainable information. Cronenberg and Carax’s films are dense and polarizing, unafraid to leave the audience in a state of confusion. Perhaps that’s the point, though. What is life but a series of seemingly random incidents woven together by our presence? How much of that long ride down that long road should we truly grasp?

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Cleaver Magazine, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.