David Cronenberg is the King of metaphors and dark psychology. Take the man-becomes-monster story at the heart of The Fly (1986) and the psycho-sexuality of Freud drama, A Dangerous Method (2011). His previous offering, Cosmopolis, set largely inside a billionaire’s limousine, was a twisty, brutal examination of wealth’s psychological effects.
Capturing the essence of Cronenberg’s attachment to the abstract, Maps To The Stars is easier to warm to than the excessively figurative Cosmopolis. And unlike Cosmopolis you don’t need a cinematic version of the Rosetta Stone to make sense of it.
Novelist Bruce Wagner (I’m Losing You), is the sharp screenwriter behind Maps To The Stars and he plants us right in the middle of his characters’ crises. A woman, scarred from fire, arrives in LA and hires a limousine to tour the Hollywood star-map; an actress works through childhood trauma with her physical therapist; and a thirteen year-old actor faces a substance abuse crisis. The unerring focus is Hollywood but the characters appear disjointed and fragmented.
Then there’s a remarkable moment when this disparate story crystallises: the characters are already connected. Once suggested, those connections never stop unravelling. Cronenberg isn’t the first film-maker to use this technique. Directors as diverse as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Quentin Tarantino have successfully employed a style of interlocking stories, see Amores Perros or Pulp Fiction. In Cronenberg’s hands the escalating fusion not only feels instinctive but mirrors the film’s central message: that Hollywood’s film industry is fundamentally incestuous.
“Cronenberg frames his shots for intensity.. his frankness lends the film a dark reality”
That first conversation between the scarred girl, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), and her driver (Robert Pattinson) comes to frame Cronenberg’s entire film. Their’s is a world where converting to Scientology is a ‘career move’ and who you know is everything. In other hands such superficial chatter might lean towards the comedic, but Cronenberg frames his shots for intensity (from the profile angle of the passenger seat) and, instead, his frankness lends the film a dark reality.
Incest permeates every aspect of Maps To The Stars. Operating as a metaphor for Hollywood, it is also the plot’s driving force and its psychological weight frequently spills over into visions and apparitions whose meanings are deliberately ambiguous but not indecipherable. The cruel, psychological toll of the Hollywood fame-game, it’s repercussions for family and the devastating effects of narcissism are all under fire.
“The cruel, psychological toll of the Hollywood fame-game, it’s repercussions for family and the devastating effects of narcissism are all under fire.”
Wagner’s taboo subject matter demands brave performances and Cronenberg’s cast are game to provide. Julianne Moore lines herself up for an Oscar nomination in her panicky, frenetic portrayal of Havanna (an actress desperate to reprise the famous film role of her deceased, abusive mother). As she perches, constipated on the toilet, demanding answers to increasingly personal questions from her PA ‘chore whore,’ Moore owns one of cinema’s most courageous moments to date.
What is most striking about Maps To The Stars is the emotional pressure it exerts in spite of these satirical leanings. Moore is unflinching in her approach to Havana’s abusive childhood, not only giving us distorted, buckled up agony, but also proving herself adept at fine distinctions and subtleties – feigned interest, manipulation, veiled and not-so-veiled narcissism. Maps To The Stars is indebted to Moore for its layers of doubt and complexity.
Neither should Cronenberg’s own bravery, in taking such a frank approach to the machinations of Hollywood, go without mention. His message about its incestuous nature appeals to anyone already skeptical about an industry that brings audiences the same films, featuring the same aesthetically polished performers, year upon year. That the fictional movies within Maps To The Stars are mere sequels and remakes, only serves to sharpen Cronenberg’s riposte. The director continues to talk in metaphors but here they speak loud and clear.
VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 4/5
Running Time: 112 minutes
UK release date: 26 September 2014