Although never as omnipresent as the western, crime film or romantic comedy in the history of American cinema, the Hollywood film – that is to say the film which explores the nefarious underworld of the famous film production site – has been a reoccurring genre ever since cinema grew the intelligence and ability to look back on itself. While critics over in France were celebrating the ‘genius of the system’ in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, Hollywood spat out films such as Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), The Bad and Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) and A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954); works which maintained a satirical and critical view of the industry, rarely offering what one could call a positive portrayal. In more recent years, American independent and arthouse filmmakers, arguably fuelled by their relationship to the monstrous dream factory depicted in their films, have investigated the industry as outsiders looking in. While the development of alternative modes of film production in the second half of the 20th century resulted in the creation of a mostly-independent American cinema – bestowed with the power to criticise and rival the studio monopoly in Los Angeles – Hollywood, as presented above, has always had the ability to criticise itself. However, we can see that films such as Barton Fink (Ethan and Joel Coen, 1991), The Player (Robert Altman, 1992) and Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994), whose directors have experience working within the Hollywood system, and the art house and Europe-funded Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) and Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006), have explored Hollywood in ways impossible in the earlier years of its history, with both extraordinary success and originality.
If his last two films, A Dangerous Method (2011) and Cosmopolis (2012), were to suggest that independent auteur David Cronenberg had departed from the interest in nightmare which secured his place among Canada’s most prominent filmmakers, then Maps to the Stars arrives as a renewal of those peculiar elements we have come to associate with Cronenberg: body horror, violence, the surreal and sensational projected onto a backdrop of social malaise. This film takes Hollywood as its subject, and it can viewed as a both a satire of the industry, despite screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s opinion that it is in anything but, and as comparable in achievement to those independent and arthouse works mentioned above.
Maps to the Stars begins with a number of seemingly disparate narrative strands which for the first half of the film are difficult to consolidate. Cronenberg opens with Agatha (Mia Wasikowska, a name ever-present on this blog) curled up on a bus travelling towards Los Angeles. Influenced by the film’s title and starscape background of the opening credits, it is assumed that Agatha is a tourist heading to L.A. for the celebrity culture projected from the city. On arrival she meets chauffeur Jerome played by Robert Pattinson – in an interesting nod to his previous role in Cosmopolis as perpetual limo passenger – who is also a wannabe actor-writer. Within the film’s first five minutes Cronenberg has seemingly presented the audience with those staples of the Hollywood film genre: young people innocently attracted to allure of the industry, with hopes and dreams that will likely be crushed by the merciless exploitation of the system. But as the film unfolds it appears that Agatha is no naïve ingénue, the burns she hides underneath the long black gloves she wears, point to something darker. Throughout these scenes, I was reminded of Dr Helen Remington from his 1996 film Crash, who Agatha resembles and whose sexual mania populates much of that film.
Quickly, we find ourselves in a hospital where Justin Bieber’s actor counterpart is visiting a cancer patient who he is told is dying of AIDS. Benjie, star of Bad Babysitter, an extremely popular film franchise, offers her an iPAD so she can watch his film, an act which will hopefully repair his image in the eyes of the press. This is obviously some sort of celebrity tabloid ploy with the intentions of rescuing this stricken, arrogant thirteen year old from his drug inflicted past. The dying girl calls him out on his mistake, stating that she has non-Hodgkin lymphoma and not AIDS, but for now this error seems unimportant. Benjie soon departs shouting obscurities at his personal assistant, whose servile nature inhibits him from answering back to his obnoxious employer.
Next we meet Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an unstable actress desperate for the part originally played by her mother, Hollywood royalty Clarice Taggart, in a remake of a classic Hollywood film. Unfortunately, despite the apparent success of her audition, the director has chosen someone else. Due to her fixation on the role and obvious desperation, this destroys Havana who saw this film as one of the only ways to get her career back on track. One memorable scene depicts Havana congratulating Azita on getting the part as her mother. This moment is excruciating for both us and Havana and somehow she manages to act sincere throughout it. If there is one thing that will stay with us after watching this film, it is the performance of Julianne Moore who is breathtaking as this failed actress. In characteristic Cronenberg style, Havana regularly visits charlatan Dr. Staffard Weiss, who is incidentally the father of Benjie, for very peculiar therapy sessions which seem to unlock some sort of sexually or painfully repressed emotion out of her body. From here the narrative begins to delve deeper into the nightmare worlds Cronenberg is famous for, soon arriving at a point in which one is both confounded and seduced by what is shown on the screen. The film begins to have a ‘I can’t look away’ fascination which provokes the desire to question and discuss the narrative elements during and after its end.
While this process of sketching out the narrative slowly and in detail may prove useful for the reader, I will summarise the subsequent scenes briefly as I have realised that I have dwelled too long in matters of plot. Through her twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher, Agatha becomes Havana’s personal assistant; Benjie begins filming the sequel to Bad Babysitter, but immediately finds himself upstaged by younger co-star Roy; Agatha reveals herself as Benjie’s schizophrenic institutionalised sister who tried to kill him seven years previously; and Havana finds out that Azita’s youngest son Micah has just drowned in their pool. After celebrating the death of the child, Havana swiftly steals Azita’s role in the film, apparently without any remorse or guilt at her actions. While these scenes continue steadily towards their painful conclusions, both Havana and Benjie hallucinate the ghosts of dead people they have previously known: for Havana it is the appearance of her adolescent mother; for Benjie, it is the hospitalised girl he visited in the opening scenes. It is this interest in madness which propels the film in its closing moments.
Throughout Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg makes use of recurring images and themes, repetitions and patterns often related to either incest, hallucination or madness in order to assemble the dangling narrative threads with some sort of coherence. Perplexing, intriguing and strange – a combination which seems to work as the appraisal of the majority of Cronenberg’s oeuvre – is the best way I can describe the film. Maps to the Stars’ success relies on its ability to do away with the type of meaning the history of films set in Hollywood characteristically grant (its inherent corruption, exploitation, cruelty etc) and offer something frightening and peculiar in return.