Directed by David Cronenberg
Maps to the Stars is uncomfortable and jolting from the very first frame. Things seem off, the actors are stagey and the production values poor and overly ventilated, like a bad soap opera. It’s not that David Cronenberg’s film is underfunded, badly made or profusely fake—it’s that its too real, too honest, all at once and without any buffer time for comfortable, slow immersion into its world of lack. Whilst nearly every other film this season begs us to suspend our regular emotional functions and indulge in the cagey prospect of emotional connection, Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner instead proffer an unnerving cast of hollow, indulgent, utterly reprehensible lost souls, not a shred of decency between them, and invite us to watch them fight over scraps of acute celebrity. Screw relatability: this scathing vivisection of tinseltown and its desperate, crawling narcissists is one of the most insular and intolerant criticisms of showbusiness since Robert Altman’s The Player. Hollywood eats itself, and the pleasure is all ours.
Stars align and bloodlines whirl together as the circular story takes on an eerie, Oedipal complexion: the young and disfigured Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Hollywood at the beckoning of Twitter acquaintance Carrie Fisher (playing herself), befriends chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson), and lands a PA job with fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Segrand is working the industry with all the connections at her disposal to land the role of her own late movie-star mother in a remake of one of her most famous films. She shares an agent with bratty Bieber-esque sitcom child-star Benjie (Evan Bird), who, after a stint in rehab at the ripe age of thirteen, enters negotiations alongside Mom-ager Christina (Olivia Williams) to make a sequel to lucrative comedy Bad Babysitter. Benjie’s beloved daddy, television psychologist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is also Havana’s massage therapist, extracting emotional discharge from the pressure points only supreme narcissists seem to have.
The script by Bruce Wagner, filled with vile dialogue and unbounded wickedness, was based on his experiences as a young chauffeur at the Beverly Hills Hotel two decades ago. This updated version, perhaps still a touch naive in certain spots, is given life by a director who has brushed closer to Hollywood than he might have liked. Indeed, most of the players involved are not without their proximity to the operators that they so lasciviously portray, and entrusted with this irony, this insider knowledge of the business, they bring their vacant roles to life with absolute conviction. Maps pairs up well with Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2011), but we needn’t pry to find its real entry point into the formidable body-horror director’s oeuvre. Central to Maps is Agatha, the acrimonious burns victim whose scars render her redundant to the glamorous stars she clamours around. She’s advantageous of her handicap, using it to wriggle inconspicuously through the incestuous web of celebrities—too busy bickering over roles—to get up close to the estranged family who haplessly exiled her.
Cronenberg’s career-long examination of the way bodily mutation and inscription affects the psychology of the individual and their placement within social formations—be it Russian gangsters in Eastern Promises or underground torture-porn enthusiasts in Videodrome—continues here, as he dissects tabloid notions of beauty and reveals amorality and psychotic distress at the core of those who embody it. For Segrand and Benjie, the stars most important to the constellation of secondary characters, beauty (and they are both considered attractive within the world of the film) is punished with moral ugliness and psychotic decay. Segrand is haunted by visions of her mother, Benjie by a young girl he visited in hospital on an obligatory Make-A-Wish style visit. And yet the deformed Agatha, the evasive schizophrenic forced into black slips and rubber gloves that hide her burns, is able to wind through Hollywood, enacting a plan that remains elusive until the last scene, free from the internal turmoil of her privileged opponents.
Like most good Cronenberg films, the film’s pleasures are not reserved for erudite viewers; the pulpy, skin-deep drama of its pathetic players is like pantomime for cynics. Not a single character in Maps to the Stars would be proud of the film they star in—which is perhaps the greatest compliment I could pay it. Evan Bird is callow and difficult to watch, perhaps because he’s making his own debut as a very experienced young character, but the performances elsewhere are harrowing and rich, and always, above all else, tragically funny. Olivia Williams is a fright as Benjie’s fretful mother, Wasikowska brilliant, as always, as the mysterious Agatha, and Pattinson unexpectedly depreciating. Julianne Moore won the Best Actress palm at Cannes this year, and she’d win the Oscar too were the Academy not the antithesis of this film’s values. Awarding her would be tantamount to bludgeoning themselves with the trophy. She is horrific and electrifying—unlike and more capable than any other working actress in the the performance she gives here as Havana Segrand. In her lineage of hollow, emotional characters navigating age and the haze of prescription drug addiction, Segrand is Moore’s most challenging role yet, and she makes every line simultaneously a despicable whinge and a desperate cry. Moore’s gift is in ensuring that we’re never tempted to reach out and help her.
Like hearing somebody talk and knowing that every word they’re saying is a lie, the discourse between film and audience is uniquely calibrated to exclude emotional involvement. We don’t see it the same way we see regular movies, in a self-contained world severed from reality, a bottled storm of emotions with shaded characters and drama and direction. Cronenberg draws back the curtain—to use a phrase that finally seems fitting—and allows us to watch this ridiculous ensemble as they flounder without a script that cares whether they’re sympathetic or even particularly complex. The emotional exchange of conventional movies is replaced with a pure, voyeuristic pleasure of seeing the morally devoid suffer. As they clamour for something as immaterial as fame, you might smirk in knowing that celebrity is not at all a privilege, but a detriment, and that the cavernous world of the rich and famous is a hellish one far removed from yours. What comes as a surprise is the humility in knowing that the next time you step into a cinema and open up that little pocket of empathy reserved for characters of fiction, you’re exercising a quality that is not for everyone a certitude, but in fact an honourable quality.
Maps to the Stars is screening as part of the PIAF Lotterywest Festival Films program. Session times and ticketing information here.