Maps To The Stars seems to cement David Cronenberg moving into a new third phase in his career. Having made a name for himself in the 70’s and 80’s with provocative and perverse body horror pictures, his output since has been almost entirely literary, adapting disparate or ‘unfilmable’ source materials (his last self-written film was 1999’s eXistenZ). Now, however, between this and his last, Cosmopolis, the auteur seems to have found a new and fiercely contemporary muse.
Actually, that’s something of a misnomer. Cronenberg’s films have always felt modern as he constantly seems keen to palpate our collective psyche. Yet between these two films in particular it feels he has found an altered vocabulary. An inspection of narcissistic personalities heightened by the silence that surrounds them. In Cosmopolis Robert Pattinson’s jaded business tycoon swept through East Coast traffic like a ghost, the rioting 99%ers on the streets coldly muted. With Maps To The Stars the effect is more pronounced. As Cronenberg throws his gaze on Hollywood, his groteseque cast are surrounded by silence permanently; nothing penetrates their own self-absorbed mini-dramas.
Maps To The Stars follows an ensemble of connected characters in ‘Tinseltown’, prying into their decaying lives and making jaded observations on the hollow and corrosive effect of the system and the studios on the individuals drawn to and locked within them. It feels like the adaptation of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel (not unfamiliar territory for Cronenberg) in that there is an undeniably cold remove here, but one in sync with the director’s prior aesthetics, brought to the screen by his trusted collaborators including ever-present DOP Peter Suschitsky.
It’s tough for films about Hollywood not to feel like they’re swallowing themselves, even when they take a satirical or even vicious standpoint. Maps manages to navigate around this trap as Cronenberg has never really been a part of Hollywood. Forever the outsider looking in, this film suggests his view is not a very forgiving one. Nevertheless, this film is initially hard to read or get close to. The seemingly disparate characters are introduced like a drip feed, making the story difficult to connect with, yet as their lives mingle and – ultimately – tear one another down, the movie becomes deceptively compelling. It’s smartly woven.
Among our number then are fading star Havana Segrand (Julianna Moore channeling Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. and not a million miles away from her character in Magnolia), vile 13-year-old child sensation Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), hopeful young ingenue and burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) and, in a rather wry piece of casting, Robert Pattinson plays limo driver and aspiring actor/writer Jerome Fontana (a star name in the making, surely?). Agatha gets a job working for Havana, while starting a stilted romance with Jerome. Benjie – already in recovery – is working a deal with his mother (Olivia Williams) for the sequel to the hit movie that made him. Havana, meanwhile, is fighting to secure the role of her lifetime; playing her own young mother who haunts her throughout the film (Sarah Gadon).
Until the connections between these character are established (and some of them are surprising), Maps feels like a grab-bag of junk dialogue, with the characters exchanging token phrases until they sound almost meaningless, sort of like the chopped-up lyrics of Amnesiac-era Radiohead. “Harvey is producing”, “Everything is stunt casting”, “We go back to Prague tomorrow to do reshoots”, “Mention me when you talk”. It’s a self-absorbed world in which one might convert to Scientology “as a career move”. Yet the more we come to understand these people, the more disturbing their intersecting lives are, and the more repetitious they become.
Incest is a recurrent theme, not just in the sexualised manifestations of her mother that Havana hallucinates. Agatha brags to Jerome that her parents were brother and sister. Benjie recalls for his therapist a time when he and his sister exchanged wedding vows. Havana goes on television to talk about abuse at the hand of her step-father. Yet the incestuous nature of the film goes beyond the characters’ individual encounters. Injury by fire seems to spread between these people like venereal disease, while the self-replicating and self-consuming nature of Hollywood comes to feel just as perverse as these sexual taboos. Cronenberg is astute enough also to recognise that making a film about the entertainment world is incestuous in itself. By the end the whole film feels like a sea monster mating with itself.
The distancing feeling of this experience is one of its icy charms, but it does remove the viewer from what is happening. It is only when Agatha and Benjie connect for the first time (almost an hour into the picture) that we feel any real sympathy. But this too is a fleeting moment of warmth in a film preoccupied with frozen veneers.
John Cusack plays Agatha’s therapist father Dr Stafford Weiss; his sessions with Havana recall another film from Cronenberg’s past; The Brood. And if fans of Cronenberg’s earlier pictures feel disappointed by his apparent shift in focus, then they may be reassured to learn that Maps is not without its own nightmare elements. An award statue is misused to bloody effect. Elsewhere Dr Weiss’ abandonment of Agatha casts Maps briefly as a domestic horror movie, underpinned brilliantly by Howard Shore’s chilling synth score. The music generously recalls Mulholland Drive and hints at a far more emotionally engaging film locked within.
One knowing moment here sees Havana telling a colleague how Agatha has arrived in her life, and she uses the phrase, “She just showed up on my doorstep”. The truth isn’t so simple; Agatha came to her by way of a recommendation from Carrie Fisher. Havana even interviewed Agatha. Yet she has rewritten the story in her mind to fit within the brackets of a Hollywood standard. Something she might even pitch one day. It’s a small moment that speaks of the symptoms Cronenberg is investigating; a warped world in which people destroy themselves to create and perpetuate their own dramas.
Maps To The Stars is a cold yet curious reflection of Hollywood at its most unhealthy. The kids arrive in town already sounding like producers. It’s a magnification of the rot Altman presented us with The Player. Like that movie, Maps exists in a strange world where stars play unknowns. Regardless of this, Cronenberg’s latest is a beguiling watch. One of the most unsettling highlights of the year, even if it constantly feels as self-aware as its central characters.