With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is up.
It’s often the case when directors go out with the intention of giving Hollywood a good hiding that they end up getting drawn into the vacuous charm of it all. The 2013 film, The Canyons, is a recent reminder of just how empty and shallow these pseudo-indictments of vanity culture can be when handled by the wrong people. Maps to the Stars is less wrapped up in itself, and it owes that quality to director David Cronenberg’s clinical precision.
It’s from afar that Cronenberg dissects the entertainment industry, coolly analysing its innumerable flaws
Cronenberg’s vision of Hollywood is that of a swirling cesspool of filth and incest, eternally sucking in youthful innocence and churning out monsters, hypocrites and drug addicts. It’s from afar that Cronenberg dissects the entertainment industry, coolly analysing its innumerable flaws, observing and recording every detail in the process. Everything is channelled through an array of deranged and unbalanced characters in a narrative that closely resembles a Greek tragedy, albeit one that bears all the wit and cynicism of a self-aware situation comedy.
Throwing a childish tantrum at the centre of everything is Julianne Moore’s self-obsessed Havana Segrand, a once relevant actress now entering her twilight years. Neurotic and in constant need of gratification, Havana is desperately trying to land the leading role in a remake of a film that originally starred her own abusive mother. In an effort to cope with the psychological scars left by her mother, Havana seeks the help of celebrity quack-cum-therapist Stafford Weiss, imposingly played by John Cusack. Weiss harbours his own family anguishes, including a child-star son fresh out of rehab, the Bieber infused Benjie, and a forcibly estranged daughter, Agatha, who has returned to Los Angeles as Havana’s latest chore whore. It’s a complex chain of relationships, and from the outset it’s clear that everything’s bound to end in bloodshed and tears.
As is the case with so much of Cronenberg’s work, the thematic power of Maps to the Stars is administered through a series of deathly precise performances from each member of the cast. Every character offers up a separate set of condemnations against the shallow milieu of Beverly Hills, from the media therapist who keeps his family’s copious issues far from the public eye, to the false, grinning executives who see a recovering child star as another chance to flex their risk assessment muscle. This is Cronenberg at his surgical best, taking an unwieldy topic and employing the right tools in order to extract the beating heart of his subject.
The audience is kept anxiously waiting for some clear signal as to where the film’s heading: nervous laughter or recoiling shock?
While Moore’s venomous performance should see a number of nominations coming her way, the mere fact that she doesn’t eclipse the rest of the cast is a worthy testament to the depth and range of the performances on offer. Mia Wasikowska manages to convey the broiling tension that resides beneath Agatha’s relaxed and quirky demeanour, providing a sympathetic inroad for viewers; she’s the burn-scarred outsider whose optimism and goodwill is brutally stamped out upon arriving in Hollywood. Elsewhere, Cusack is brilliantly domineering as the patriarch of his family, while Olivia Williams is terrifyingly unfeeling as his wife, playing the role somewhere between the realms of cruel manipulator and fractured mother to their precocious son.
Tonally, Maps to the Stars dances jarringly between pitch-black comedy and psychological drama. Cronenberg never really settles on the matter, and as such the audience is kept anxiously waiting for some clear signal as to where the film’s really heading: nervous laughter or recoiling shock? It fills every scene with tension and keeps the film moving with surprising pace, especially given the number of individual narratives running throughout the film.
The steely, cold façade of the film’s world is brilliantly realised through the cinematography of Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky. His tendency to use just one or two lenses lends Maps to the Stars an eerily personal, almost confrontational quality. The whole production has a decorative, thought-out edge to it, yet it’s consistently clear that Cronenberg isn’t seduced by this world. Rather, he’s repulsed by it.
So fraught with tension and iniquity is its world that to think of the film as a reflection of reality would fail to do its horrors justice
Cronenberg has always been notorious for his ability to tread the fine line between horror and comedy with unparalleled poise and accuracy, and it’s in that vein that Maps to the Stars is one of his finest films in years. It’s a deeply unnerving, infectious piece of work, built entirely out of scathing judgments and witty observations, stitched together and reeking of Formaldehyde. Ultimately Maps to the Stars is a hallucinogenic nightmare – so fraught with tension and iniquity is its world that to think of it as a reflection of reality would fail to do its horrors justice.
All images: Entertainment One