Maps to the Stars: A Review

Harrison Ford, John Wayne, Sir Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand and…David Cronenberg. What links these famous names to each other’s famous face? They are all seventy two years of age. Definitely time to retire in the case of Lennon sidekick, Sir Paul, still kicking us in the side with his flagging music. Definitely not time for a Blade Runner reboot in the case of Harrison. Definitely dead in the case of John and still releasing music in her sixth separate decade for Barbara. Some age well, others die, still more retire into relative anonymity. But what is the case for directorial David?

Maps to the Stars comes fresh on the back of 2012’s Cosmopolis and continues Cronenberg’s trend for the indecent unstitching of modern society. Turning west from the towers of Manhattan’s millions to the western Hollywood hemisphere, Maps is, in theory, a snarling satire, a biting critique of LA La Land’s miracle mirage. Cronenberg studies this visage before publicly eviscerating his subject matter on the operating table of the big screen. Birdman was satirical, almost farcical in its glorification of the Hollywood world it caricatured so affectionately.

Maps is not related in any shape or form. While Mexican Iñarritù sought humour, slapstick and buzzing one liners in a shower of meta-mania glory, Canadian Cronenberg, an outsider too, turns the industry inside out from its beating, plastic heart. There is about as much affection as a plastic surgeon fastidiously removing cellulite from a celebrity or John Cusack’s Weiss administering one of his therapeutic massages to Hollywood’s elite. Leaping lecherously upon the back and leeching his subject with parasitic, probing hands, uncovering the truth that lurks beneath the surface gleam.

So seventy two years of maturity have not quelled and calmed the existential angst of Cronenberg’s warped, venereal horror. Unlike his contemporary, David Lynch, whose output has dwindled of late, Cronenberg keeps going, here holding a mirror to his vocation. If Maps is neither satire, nor black comedy, it has elements of both within a world of extended reality. Every character is recognisable today, blown out of proportion by a thread of incest that gives the narrative its form. Cronenberg delves into some amateur Bieberology through the character of thirteen year old, Benjie (Evan Bird) a child prodigy turned junkie who looks like a young Shia LaBeouf.

Yet, Julianne Moore, in the year in which she took home the Academy Award for best actress, puts in her finest performance of 2014, stealing the show. Still Alice was strong because of Moore’s credibly incredible descent from professor to dependent, jogger to stutterer. Maps has Moore as the black star, combusting in the centre of a far more fiery, urgent whole. She plays Havana Segrand, a middle aged, washed up, actress, slipping slowly and surely into the void of irrelevance.

Each day brings new heartbreak for Havana in her desperate bid to rekindle her career by playing the same character as her mother had early in her career. Interwoven into the fabric of this storyline is the constant, haunting presence of her mother’s ghoulish phantom, played perfectly by a pallid Sarah Gadon. She is the pearl in the ugly oyster of Hollywood, shining with a bright white radiance offering the antithesis to the dark bleakness of Havana’s world. Only, she is dead and the others are all alive.

Havana and Hollywood share the same abysmal aesthetic of a sterile, anodyne environment. All life is struck out of the film’s shooting locations, which range from hospital to home, film set to boardroom. Each is stale and claustrophobic pressing down on the actors from each side of the screen. Like David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the familiar scenes of streets and suburbs are subverted into a kind of unreality through the glaring gaze of the camera. This theme is echoed by a Cannes wining soundtrack from Howard Shore who complements the action onscreen with an original and excellent interpretation of the metallic void at the film’s core. There is no comfort of colour or heat of warmth to the landscapes of Maps, merely a discomforting monochrome to the barrage of unnatural, man-made spaces.

These threads stitch together in the beautiful, yet disturbing, still of Mia Wasikowska’s Agatha. Agatha is a schizophrenic arsonist lost in a quasi-orphaned state, who becomes the PA of Havana. Facially scarred by burns, she is a visual realisation of the Greek tragic theme of pollution: the stain of incest and ungodly behaviour.  As she looks through the sheen-stained glass of Havana’s home upon Julianne Moore being fucked doggy style by Robert Pattinson, the glass reflects back the image of pruned plants. Even the nature here is a fictitious distortion, not growing wild but in the greenhouse of LA’s atmosphere of cultivation, the control of the natural. Only, in Cronenberg’s eyes, this leads to the concoction of the unnatural, witnessed in the incest and sexual delinquency of his characters. There is no catharsis, just a thunderstorm of miasma. 

Agatha is hired as PA to Havana. Havana, alongside her agent and housekeeper, represents a veritable micro-hub of economic activity and employment. She goes down the shop, investing in America’s economy of consumerism. She hires a chauffeur, keeping Pattinson’s Jerome off the streets and in work. Overall, she is the perfect capitalist, at the head of a hydra of lives whom depend upon her for support. Instead of being isolated and alone, she is the manager of this micro-world, driven by the tendencies of her taste. There is a similar sense of incest and economic micromanagement in Cronenberg’s hirelings. Maps counts at least two other blood relatives in its crew, including photographer Caitlin and costume designer Denise. Scout out the Cronenberg dynasty and nearly everyone from sons to nephews is dependent upon the film industry. So maybe, just maybe the incest and economy of Maps to the Stars is a little closer to home than we are led to believe…

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