Maps to the Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada, Germany, France, United States | 2014 | 111 minutes
Maps to the Stars receives its only physical screening in Madison as part of the Cinesthesia series at the Central Library (Room 302), Thursday, February 4 at 6:30 p.m. Cinesthesia curator Jason Fuhrman argues that while the film is not a Hollywood satire, it is Cronenberg’s most savagely funny film to date.
Hollywood is a world that is seductive and repellent at the same time, and it is the combination of the two that makes it so potent.
— David Cronenberg
With Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg guides us on a tortuous tour of the dark side of Hollywood. The epicenter of desperation, viciousness, instability and fear of aging, Los Angeles’ dream factory is an ideal setting in which to refine his talents for body horror and trenchant social commentary.
In films as diverse as The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), eXistenZ (1999), Eastern Promises (2007), and A Dangerous Method (2011), Cronenberg has explored the intensity of human frailty and decay, while focusing on the flesh and its many accelerated mutations, whether out of disease, anger, dread, or hope. Throughout his body of work, the malady or extreme warping of life is itself a potent life force and physical reality is often an exteriorization of unconscious processes.
In his latest film, Cronenberg scrapes away the insubstantial glitter of the movie industry to reveal the existential emptiness that gnaws at the rich and famous. With icy precision and wry detachment, he observes a constellation of high-functioning Hollywood addicts and lost souls portrayed by a stellar ensemble cast.
Julianne Moore (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes) plays Havana Segrand, a fading, narcissistic actress who is perpetually on the verge of a meltdown. She will stop at nothing to gain the lead role in a remake of a 1950s picture that originally starred her mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), a Hollywood legend who died in a conflagration. Her regular therapist/masseuse/TV psychologist is a predatory, wild-eyed self-help guru named Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). With his assistance, she has accessed memories of being sexually abused by her mother, who materializes before Havana in terrifying nightmares and hallucinations.
Stafford’s own son, Benjie (Evan Bird), is the precocious, disaffected 13-year-old star of an enormously lucrative franchise teen-movie series entitled Bad Babysitter. He has just sullenly undergone a summer of rehab and is haunted by the phantom of a deceased fan after the ghastly fiasco of his PR-motivated visit to her hospital bedside. Benjie’s brittle, apprehensive mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a manager now in control of his burgeoning career.
At the center of the film is Agatha, performed with disturbing intensity by Mia Wasikowska. She is a burn-scarred newcomer to Hollywood who has just been released from a Florida psychiatric facility. Almost immediately upon arrival, she encounters Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a sexy, blasé limo driver who is, of course, really an actor and aspiring screenwriter. (It is a sly twist on Pattinson’s role in Cronenberg’s previous film, Cosmopolis, in which he plays a limo passenger.) At first, Agatha seems guileless and amiable, but soon enough she reveals a capacity for cruelty that rivals Havana’s. Owing to a personal connection with Carrie Fisher, the one celebrity permitted to play herself, she lands a job as Havana’s personal assistant (or “chore whore”, in the derisive slang).
Despite its mordant jet-black humor and extravagant cynicism, Maps to the Stars is categorically not a satire. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner penned the self-reflexive script in the 1990s when he worked as a limo driver for the Beverly Hills Hotel and witnessed the cesspool of celebrity up close. Neither Wagner nor Cronenberg is interested in dissecting Hollywood mores and manners. While the film is clearly a work of fiction that uses exaggeration and often hurtles into the absurd, it is brutally honest about the vacuous horrors of Hollywood. In fact, Wagner claims that he has heard every line of dialogue in the movie spoken by someone. “Contrary to critics’ easy characterization, it doesn’t have a satirical bone in its elegiac, messy, hysterical body,” he insists in an essay for The Guardian, “I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it.” He considers the movie “a ghost play” rather than a satire.
Throughout the arc of his output, Cronenberg has never strayed far from either his distinctive visual style or central themes, continuing to shock audiences and offer brilliant metaphors for his obsessions. Maps to the Stars, his 21st feature, and his fifth to be selected for competition at Cannes, finds him returning to the kind of filmmaking that provokes a visceral reaction, in this case laughter. Although it is perhaps his most savagely funny work to date, Maps to the Stars is a tense and scary movie. The scheming monsters that populate the picture are as grotesque and abhorrent as any of the creatures in his other films. While the viewer may recoil in disgust from Maps to the Stars, there is something uncannily powerful and alluring about it—much like Hollywood itself.