“On my notebooks from school On my desk and the trees On the sand on the snow I write your name”
The weird, unique, often disturbing perspective of David Cronenberg’s films is highly regarded at home in Canada, and by a fairly substantial following internationally; so naturally enough, fans eagerly awaited his take on the promising theme of Hollywood and celebrity culture. Maps to the Stars is also the first movie he’s filmed partly outside Canada, only because Los Angeles was necessary as a backdrop. The result was as peculiar and mixed, and as relentlessly and incongruously sunny, as Hollywood itself.
Like most Cronenberg films, it was variously described by critics as the worst movie he’s done, as the best he’s done, as a flawed gem, and as a mediocre film with moments of brilliance. Viewers will have to make up their own minds. It is, at the very least, continually intriguing, and always well acted. The body horror that is associated with his work is kept to a minimum here. The horror in this story is mostly internal. It could be described as a comedy, but only in the broadest sense; the subtle, dark, biting humour will be familiar to any Cronenberg fan.
Maps to the Stars could be described as the feral, schizophrenic granddaughter of Sunset Boulevard, acknowledging the allure of Hollywood while revealing its darker side. The script, by a man long familiar with Hollywood ‘royalty’ through his day job as a limousine driver, portrays an extended Los Angeles family who are all involved in, and all damaged by, the film industry and fame in one way or another.
Central to the story is the family of Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a psychologist who has made a fortune offering experimental new-age therapies and sympathetic attention to self-absorbed movie actors. His wife manages the career of their 13-year-old son, Benjie, an insufferably rude, conceited child star who has already completed one session in drug rehab. Their disowned 18-year-old daughter, Agatha, is away receiving ‘treatment,’ having nearly killed herself and her brother by purposely setting fire to their house. We are all, naturally, filled with delighted anticipation when Agatha, a plain, eerily quiet girl covered in burn scars, is seen arriving in Los Angeles on a bus. We are not disappointed, as Agatha serves as a catalyst to disrupt the lives of most of the other characters.
The most impressive acting work is from Julianne Moore, as a neurotic, passably talented, second generation movie star named Havana Segrand, who is trying to sustain a career in a field which dismisses women over 40. Her desperation and neediness are all but tangible, and her unthinking self-importance almost too real to be funny. Mia Wasikowska equally as wonderful; she is sweet and vulnerable but subtly scary as Agatha, the unstable, pyromaniac black sheep of the Weiss family, driven to push her way back into the social circle that has shunned her – less for her attempted homicide, it’s implied, than for being plain and untalented. In another film, Agatha might be the villain; but she is surrounded by people so pathologically selfish and unkind, she becomes a sympathetic character by default. Her reverence for movie stars is endearing and a little pitiful, more so when she manages to wrangle a job as personal assistant to the famous Havana, where she becomes an overburdened errand girl and sounding board.
The humour in Maps to the Stars is tossed out in passing, and is usually at the expense of the celebrity characters. The obligatory acts of charity by stars, the outward show of humility and friendliness, are comedic mostly due to the audience’s awareness of how thin the facade really is. There are truly painful moments, as when Havana secretly celebrates that a rival for an important movie role has lost her child in an accident, leaving the role available; or when she casually seduces the boyfriend of her vulnerable young assistant, merely to bolster her own ego. The youngest of the actors, including central character Benjie, have abandoned any pretence of decency. They use the same recreational cruelty and compulsive ridicule common online, in scathing scenes of what the screenwriter calls “high end savagery.” They represent the typical vanity and competitiveness of Hollywood stars, with the added fuel of internet culture eroding any remaining human feeling.
The unacknowledged class distinction between the famous and the ordinary runs through the entire film. Their every whim is catered to by a wide range of people whose job is to keep them physically and emotionally gratified at all times. Tremendous care is taken by servants, agents, lawyers, and other inferiors to satisfy and placate the stars, a situation which becomes more pointed as the film progresses. Particularly uncomfortable examples, which the writer insists are not exaggerations, include a child star ordering food from his mother as if she were a waitress, and a self-absorbed actress casually giving orders to her personal assistant while defecating on the toilet, with no more thought than if the assistant were a house pet. It is shocking but also a little bit agreeable when one of the menials finally snaps and resorts to violence against her exalted employer.
The film includes a supernatural or fantasy aspect, in the form of ghosts, beginning with the appearance of a long-dead film star – Havana’s famous mother. This is part of a gradual blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy, which is a main theme of the movie. More and more characters begin to be plagued by ghostly hallucinations, intense deja vu, or confused ideas of reality. Eventually, as though in reaction to the weak grip on reality which the film suggests is a feature of Hollywood, fantasy and illusion clash with the real world, leading to a bizarre and violent, yet somehow appropriate, conclusion…for your viewing pleasure.
Throughout Maps to the Stars, the poem cited above – Liberty, by surrealist poet Paul Éluard, periodically crops up. The poem was an ode to freedom, personal and artistic, by a man who accepted revolutionary acts in the pursuit of this precious freedom, but that context is suppressed for most of the film. Characters regularly run across the poem, refer to it, quote from it. However, for almost the entire film the poem is deliberately misrepresented as an homage to an admired Hollywood figure – Agatha dreamily recites from it as she admires the famous display of celebrity footprints in cement on Hollywood Boulevard. It serves to represent the rift between the lives portrayed and anything real, human, or worthwhile. Only in the final scene is the identity of the revered name, that of liberty, identified, just as multiple forms of destruction – Éluard’s violent but necessary revolution – are taking place. The liberty in this case is not from political oppression, but from illusion, triviality, and the depreciation of human nature that Hollywood is used to represent.