David Cronenberg: Maps to the Stars (2014)

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More so than any of the other late works of David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars doesn’t bear many of the obvious indicators of a Cronenbergesque film. The overt genre features are that of neither horror nor science fiction. We witness no astonishing bodily transformation. The film is set in sunny Hollywood, not grey Toronto and, rare for Cronenberg, was shot partially outside Canada. And yet, like with A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, on closer inspection of Maps to the Stars we discover themes, formal techniques, and a clinical tone consistent with Cronenberg’s body of work: there’s his interest in sexual and psychological deviancies; his unflinching eye, dispassionate yet curious, for bodily functions and the violence perpetrated against bodies; and his visual and narrative styles, which are seemingly plain yet tightly controlling of information. Thus, in a strange way, Maps to the Stars offers a useful conclusion to our discussion of this expert, outlier filmmaker.

The play on words contained in the title, Maps to the Stars, indicates the dual interests of film. On the one hand, the title denotes those pamphlets handed out on street corners in Hollywood to show celebrity-chasing tourists where particular movie stars live. On the other hand, the title evokes occult astrological guides. The title therefore suggests the film’s double nature, as, firstly, a scathing and hilarious satire of Hollywood and, secondly, a bizarre and overwrought Gothic family tragedy.

The title likely contains an allusion to A Star Is Born, that fundamental myth of show business and the American Dream (particularly the 1937 and 1954 versions, which are about Hollywood rather than the music industry). Both A Star Is Born and Maps to the Stars not only have titles that can be read in terms of astronomy as well as celebrity, but, more importantly, they also share narrative similarities. Like A Star Is Born, Maps to the Stars features a plucky and seemingly innocent young woman, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), arriving in Hollywood to make her way in the film industry. However, as the fragmented storylines of Maps come together, the discordance between who we initially assume Agatha to be and who she actually is magnifies into a sort of inverted nightmare version of A Star Is Born.

Upon arriving in Hollywood, Agatha asks her driver, Jerome (Robert Pattinson), to take her immediately to a specific location, suggesting celebrity hunting. However, we quickly learn Agatha has insider knowledge (as well as online connections to Carrie Fisher), so she is in no need of the particular knowledge a starmap would provide. At the remains of the house at the foot of the Hollywood sign hill, we discover Agatha knows the place and the boy intimately. It is the former home of child star, Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), and she suggests she babysat him back in the day. Like in all Gothic narratives, the true and sinister nature of things will emerge over the course of the film: Agatha is really Benjie’s sister, and she was banished to a mental facility across the country after she burned down the family home and nearly killed Benjie. Having recently turned eighteen, she has been released, and she returns to her family—but to what end? Maps to the Stars is about special knowledge, and to that end the film is a convergence of Hollywood and the Gothic. Agatha and her family’s secrets link the origins of Hollywood star power to dark and sinister personal matters.

Degrees of special knowledge mark each of the industry insider characters and their often sinister connections, with Pattinson’s Jerome, a hapless wannabe-breakout filmmaker-cum-limo driver-cum-personal-assistant at the centre. Jerome is not the film’s protagonist, but he is an important connector between the different characters and their subplots, as well as the naive innocent in this exceedingly dirty business. Jerome’s passivity and lack of knowledge also align him with the viewer. While in many narratives the audience knows more than the characters (which is dramatic irony), in other stories audiences often lack knowledge that characters do. The latter is more common in Cronenberg’s films, and this dynamic between the audience and the filmic text is emphasized in Maps to the Stars.

In the film, Cronenberg introduces each character and subplot as their own self-contained narrative, or solitary star (to borrow the titular metaphor), and only as the film develops do we discover how the stars connect, forming sinister constellations in the movie world. In this sense, the film maps out the stars. Agatha leverages her friendship with Carrie Fisher to get a personal assistant job with Julianne Moore’s aging actress Havana Segrand, who hopes to return to prominence by playing the same role as her mother in the remake of her mother’s landmark artsy incest drama. There is also the troubled child actor, Benjie Weiss, with his protective and at turns demanding and damaged mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams). In one of the most overt Gothic aspects of the film, Benjie is haunted by the ghost, or hallucination, of a dying child he visits at the hospital in his first scene. Lastly, John Cusack plays a West Coast spiritualist self-help grifter called Stafford.

Stafford’s introduction is a good example of Cronenberg’s tight regulation of information in Maps to the Stars. In his first scene, Stafford is massaging Havana, and we think he might be a massage therapist. But his conversation as he more and more vigorously rubs her veers into psychotherapy and purging her memories of abuse from childhood. Only later do we discover he is the emotionally-distant father of Benjie and the husband of Cristina. Furthermore, for a good portion of the film, we take Stafford to be merely pompous and vapid, but, in Gothic fashion, he is ultimately revealed to be a monstrously manipulative and controlling father and husband.  

In Cronenberg’s later films, his unflashy yet controlled form is impeccable. A meeting scene between the boy star Benjie and his mother, Cristina, their agents, and various producers shows Cronenberg’s quiet expertise. He severely restricts the viewer’s awareness in the scene. All the shots are medium or closer, showing a single figure at the meeting table. We never get a long shot showing the layout of the room or where people are located around the table. Cronenberg simply cuts back and forth between speakers. The shot choices and editing, which keep the viewer from knowing where anyone is specifically sitting around the table, functions metaphorically, suggesting that no one at the table really knows where the others stand on the matters being discussed. True motivations and the nature of events are concealed. A congenial business face is put forward by all. The scene is also a good example of how Cronenberg’s form contributes to the biting and funny satire.  

Maps to the Stars also contains moments of hilarious dark comedy, the bulk of which comes from Julianne Moore’s horrific washed-up actress, Havanna, who not only evokes Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard but also parallels, in her relation to Agatha, the declining actor who takes on the young protégé in A Star Is Born (Benjie’s decline alongside Agatha’s ascent offers another parallel). At one point in Maps to the Stars, the death of a rival’s child lands Havana the role she covets in the remake of her mother’s masterpiece. In front of a bewildered Agatha, Havana toasts to “Little Micah and little miracles”—the little miracle being the little boy Micah’s drowning in a pool, to her benefit. Later in the film, Havana sits on a toilet while carping to Agatha, and then complains that her crapping reeks, without apparent self-consciousness that her assistant has had to witness all this.

Cronenberg, with his ever-present obsession with human bodies, holds a particular fascination for Havana’s body in the movie, as her desperate attempts to maintain the long-gone blossom of youth are portrayed as a kind of bodily degeneration. She dresses too young, her smiles are too forced, her makeup too pronounced. Cronenberg also savours the burn scars on Agatha’s body, and they become a point of conversation with Jerome, with whom she has sex, and with Havana, who wonders how the scars function in Agatha’s sex life.

Of course, being a Cronenberg movie, we get strange sex. This time it’s incest, which functions both as a comment on Hollywood’s lack of originality, as well as the Gothic horror that is uncovered. Hollywood is incestuous. Everyone “knows” everyone, often in the biblical carnal sense of “knowing.” But it is also the dark secret of the Weiss family, and what propelled Agatha to burn down her family home as well as to now take her revenge in the present.

Near the end of the film, Stafford comments, “The world will know we have done crimes.” In a recent contribution to The Globe and Mail based on a talk he delivered at OCAD, Cronenberg presents his thoughts about art: “Because the human body is evolving, changing, and since the cinema is body, it makes sense that the cinema is changing, evolving as well.” He also subscribes to a Freudian vision of civilization/civil society as repression. The focus on the lecture was that art is subversive and even criminal. These comments have some strange affinities with Maps to the Stars, which is a fairly self-conscious work on movie making.

The linking of body and cinema in Cronenberg’s works is most vividly realized in Videodrome, but both are also linked, if less literally, in Maps to the Stars. In Havana, we see how important the actor’s body is to the film industry, and how job prospects are linked to physical states. Sexual transgression is the conspicuous focus of the films discussed and being produced in Maps to the Stars, as well as the secret foundation of the Weiss family, a family firmly embedded, like an essential organ, in the leviathan industry.

If this happens to be Cronenberg’s last film, you couldn’t ask for a darker vision of the film industry, and it’s particularly poignant coming from a Canadian filmmaker who has functioned in many respects as an outsider to the American, Hollywood-based industry. Although with some of his films Cronenberg has attained mainstream box office, critical, and awards success, Maps to the Stars is evidence that he has no bones about protecting the industry. His vision of Hollywood seems to be that it’s a hotbed of messed up people with dark and sinister secrets, many of them sexual and/or criminal. The film’s ridicule and criticism are only more relevant as we learn more and more about casting couch policies and the sexual abuse of minors in Hollywood.

I mentioned Sunset Boulevard earlier, and it offers an interesting point of comparison in conclusion. Sunset Boulevard is well-known as a movie about the movies that lacks the typical luster and adoration. Billy Wilder’s film is a darker, noirish vision of Hollywood, in which a late-in-life former silent-star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), lives in a Gothic decrepit mansion, and into her spider’s web a desperate screenwriter (William Holden) becomes enmeshed. That film manages to blend its Gothic and Hollywood satire elements such that it forms a harmonious whole. In contrast, Maps to the Stars remains fragmented and divided, but that might be the point. After watching the film, it remains ambiguous how exactly the two halves connect, but that sense of deep and horrific connection just beneath the surface seems to be part of the film’s message. It’s far from Cronenberg’s best film, but, in an unconventional way, it’s possibly one of his strangest. And coming from Cronenberg, that is certainly something.   

8 out of 10

Maps to the Stars (2014, Canada/France/Germany/USA)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Bruce Wagner; starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, and John Cusack.