In Maps to the Stars the firmament of Hollywood is brought crashing to earth as he puts aging stars, child actors, limo drivers with dreams, and all of the associated collateral damage of stardom under the scalpel. Cronenberg transmutes his typical bodily horror into something far more conceptual and resonant, portraying a community where disfigurement is the ultimate fetish and fear.
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Bruce Wagner
Runtime: 111 minutes.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: Set amongst a web of Hollywood royalty, of pampered stars and pop psychiatrists, the film follows young and troubled Agatha as she returns to the town, and takes up a position as a personal assistant for ageing star Havana Segrand. Alongside Havana’s ruthless campaign to be cast in a role previously played by her mother, is young Benjie who is the child star of a new franchise known as Bad Babysitter. This being a Cronenberg film, something deeply strange is occurring beneath the surface.
Festival Goers? See it.
Review: 'Now there’s a man who’s made strange films; honoured, yes, but still strange' a character remarks at the midpoint of David Cronenberg’s latest – and possibly last – film, Maps to the Stars. And it isn’t the only wry, fourth-wall breaking reference the director sneaks in during the course of this excellent film, layering a fun game on top of some potent satire in the director’s trademark of conceptual one-upmanship. Cronenberg has always been the consummate artist of the sensational; procuring new content to satisfy our obsessions, but in doing so attaching a little meaning and satire to them that makes their consumption uniquely confronting. In Maps to the Stars the firmament of Hollywood is brought crashing to earth as he puts ageing stars, child actors, limo drivers with dreams, and all of the associated collateral damage of stardom under the scalpel. Working off a script by veteran Bruce Wagner, written over twenty years ago by Cronenberg’s account, the result is as deeply unsettling as one would expect from a Cronenberg film.
That the film doesn’t have as much bite or horror as one would hope is most probably the result of the target, which has been so thoroughly skewered and derided as vapid that it’s hard to find new material to satirise. The master still manages to find some new corners to explore, though; particularly the ghoulish glee that an ambitious actress can muster when stepping over the literal corpses of others to the part she simply must have, and the cast of parasites that profit from her resultingly unhinged psyche. Yet ultimately Cronenberg aims, as he always does, at the issue of meaning and consumption; needling the audience into contemplating their own role in enabling this destructive mess, through their need for entertainment. It’ s nothing new, but that hardly matters – Cronenberg could film the dictionary, and still find a vein of Cthulu-like horror to exploit within it.
The cast of characters is diverse; and an attentive viewer will quickly appreciate the Hollywood mash-up of other Hollywood-examines-Hollywood films that are woven into the DNA of Maps to the Stars. At the core of the film is a spectacular performance from Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, an A-list actress now aging and struggling to find parts, who is intent on starring in a remake-meets-adaption of her mother’s Oscar-nominated film. ‘Every daughter should have an opportunity to play her mother’ Carrie Fisher remarks winkingly (there it is again), when running into Havana at the latest spot to be. The Mommy Dearest issues are further compounded when Fisher recommends young Agathe (Mia Wasikowska) as a personal assistant, a role the girl is only too happy to fulfil. Agathe and Havanna bond over their respective traumas through fire – Agatha was disfigured by a mysterious fire some years ago, and Havana’s mother died in a fire. The scene is set for a strange, unsettling re-enactment of the mother daughter dynamic, this time with a series of unnatural reversals.
Yet the film also wants to reference classics like Robert Altman’s The Player, with the shop talk at parties and amongst managers as stars negotiate with studios or vie for high profile parts to move their career forward. 'Yeah, we did 780 million worldwide. Not many people realise that,' child star Benjie remarks in passing to a cancer patient he is visiting; while a studio executive defends the boy with the justification of ‘that kind of income would fuck up Mother Teresa.’ Robert Pattinson also makes a brief appearance as Jerome Fontana, a limo driver with aspirations of becoming an actor and scriptwriter – completing the portrait of the Hollywood ecosystem at numerous levels. 'I’m thinking of converting [to Scientology], you know, like a career move' he muses; again proving through his underplayed performance that he is an actor of real talent, although some may object that this isn’t even the first Cronenberg film where he’s been stuck in limo limbo.
But the heart of the film belongs, oddly enough, to the Greek tragedy of Benjie (a perfect Evan Bird); the child star and helm of the new, banal franchise Bad Babysitter. Cronenberg’s satire is pitch perfect when it aims itself at the relatively new phenomena of the tentpole franchise and the revitalised power that stars have in creating a successful role; combine that with grasping, exploitative parents and the Beiber-like bad boy behaviour of the star and the film really starts to lift off. Predictably, but appropriately, this ensemble is incestuously interconnected; with Benji’s father, star psychiatrist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), acting as performance coach to the emotionally crippled Havanna ('but what we can name we can tame' he remarks, in an example of his dime-store psychoanalysis), and Benjie sharing agents with her. The connections keep on multiplying, exposing the hidden disturbances within the web that make up the cocoon to the stars.
As the behaviours of Benjie and Havana gets worse and worse, the tension in the threads start to pull on other characters caught within this strange environment. And ultimately, everyone’s economic interests are united in a conspiracy of indecency that indicts the structure of entertainment and consumption the public has built for them. The firmament of Maps to the Stars is fundamentally a cultural construct, and one Cronenberg seems to have little love for (and although the Canadian professes otherwise, this is his first film shot within L.A. itself). It is in this context that Cronenberg transmutes his typical bodily horror into something far more conceptual and resonant, portraying a community where disfigurement is the ultimate fetish and fear. In documenting this closely inter-related ensemble, he illustrates a disfigurement of many forms that goes beyond the physical; and quickly becomes entangled in the more delirious, possibly supernatural elements of the film. Even this has a cinematic precursor; the strange interlink and the psychic elements that become supernatural will remind many of The Witches of Eastwick. But when one makes a film about Hollywood, misappropriation for satirical purposes is the chief tool in turning its own material against it; and scriptwriters are notorious for seeking catharsis and revenge on studio executives, actors, and old girlfriends submerged within the products they must make and disown to feed the ever-hungering machine of tinsel town.
The film is not without missteps; even from an old master like Cronenberg. High literature seems to escape him, as the film bears an unintentional thematic resonance to Ibsen’s Ghosts (which also features that symbolic fire), and the counterpoint of Paul Éluard’s poemLiberty seems to be included more for the sound and sentiment rather than the meaning. In some scenes Cronenberg doesn’t push the critique far enough – saving his audience from their own consumption at a critical point, by muting violent blows when the viewer should be made to sit through each and every one. The final shot, too, is obvious and expected; reaching an end-point that itself satirises countless other rom-com films, in its own twisted fashion, but detracts from the originality of that appropriation.
But Maps to the Stars is excellent satire, and potent critique; Cronenberg meets audience demand by presenting sensational material, but he attaches enough meaning and resonance to it that audiences are made deeply uncomfortable by their own enjoyment. One cannot merely point, stare, gossip at the horror and titillation of it all; one is made complicit.
Rating: Four stars.