David Cronenberg’s brilliant Maps to the Stars is a modern mythological family tragedy set amongst the flawed, emotionally disfigured gods and goddesses of contemporary pop culture (movie stars) from the airless heights of that insulated Mount Olympus known as Hollywood.
Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a Hollywood falling-star suffering the first pangs of impending obsolescence, and, consequently, lives in a near-constant state of naked desperation. A desperation not quelled by yoga, meditation, narcotics, age-regression therapy, or “purpose fucking” (sex with well-placed industry types for the purpose of their putting in a good word for you when they can). In a town where 23-year-old actresses are considered old, and the term “menopausal “ has become shortcut slang for an irrelevant woman; Havana literally clings to her more-marketable past (via a prominently-displayed Genie Award [given by the Academy of Canadian Film]) while discussing dwindling career options with her pragmatic agent. Whose name is, curiously enough, Genie.
Hungry for career rejuvenation, Havana fixates on landing the starring role in Stolen Waters, a reimagining (Hollywood-speak for remake) of a 60s cult film which starred her late mother, actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) who died tragically in a fire in 1976. Havana’s desire to be cast in a role that would have her literally playing her mother, is an obsession unabated by claims on Havana’s part that she was a victim of her mother’s physical and sexual abuse as a child. Nor the distressing revelation that her mother – abusive as ever – has begun to appear to her as a ghost.
Astronomy maps may reveal the gravitational interlink of star clusters in the heavens, but the boulevards and intersections on those geographical maps to the stars’ homes sold on Los Angeles street corners can’t begin to chart the inbred network of aligned interests and commingled gene pools that make up Hollywood. In Maps to the Stars, Havana’s central storyline is orbited by a cast of characters whose lives at first seem unrelated, but later reveal themselves, to be just as incestuously interconnected as virtually everything else in the City of Angels.
First, there’s Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), the obnoxious child star of a lucrative movie franchise. A recovering drug addict at thirteen, Benjie is already beset by the fear of being replaced by a new and younger model, and, like Havana, his nights are haunted by visions of ghosts. His ambitious stage mother (an anxiously flinty Olivia Williams) dotes on him as one would a valuable piece of stock, while his narcissistic father (John Cusak) is too busy managing his career as the nation’s best-selling self-help guru (“Secrets Kill!”) to be of much help to anyone beyond his high-profile clients.
The mysterious catalyst for joining these individuals is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a schizophrenic teenage burn victim of mysterious origin who comes to town to, in her words, “Make amends,” but serves as the narrative’s uniting thread and unwitting agent of chaos. Representative of the interrelated nature of this city of beautiful grotesques itself, Agatha is biologically linked to some characters, spiritually linked to others.
Agatha’s journey from Florida to Los Angeles by bus suggests a meagerness of funds contradicting her engagement of the film’s final character, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), the limousine chauffeur with the celebrity-ready name, to escort her to a particularly significant Hollywood site upon arrival. Fontana, like everyone else in Hollywood who isn’t already actually in the film business, is a wannabe. In this case a wannabe actor/screenwriter hired to drive the chariot for someone who turns out to be this modern myth’s angel of doom/redeemer.
Written by one-time Hollywood chauffeur Bruce Wagner, Maps to the Stars has the wittily bilious tone of the work of a Hollywood barely-insider: someone close enough to get the details right, but not so favored by the gods as to have been ensnared and blinded by the intoxicating siren song of fame, wealth, and status.
Less a Hollywood satire than a fame-culture fable with elements of magic realism; Maps to the Stars is not a film for everybody. Exceptionally well-acted and keenly realized by Cronenberg as family tragedy in a city where boundaries have eroded (even between the material and spiritual worlds), Maps to the Stars, like a great many of David Cronenberg’s films, your appreciation of it has a lot to do with how comfortable you are being made uncomfortable.In the interwoven stories of the protagonists, one finds all the elements of Greek tragedy: Secrets, ambition, incest, jealousies, violence, ghosts, visions, morality, purification through self-immolation, redemption, liberation, and the godlike summoning of the elements of fire and water.
Agatha, whose name means “good” in Greek, is a cast-out angel fallen from grace returning to survey the ruins of her former home on the contemporary Mount Olympus that are the Hollywood Hills. When asked where she’s from, she responds, “Jupiter.” Does she Jupiter, Florida where she was institutionalized for causing a near-deadly fire as a child? Or does she mean she came from Jupiter, the Greek god who married his sister, Juno?
David Cronenberg, master of the “body horror” genre, parallels Agatha’s visible disfigurement from the fire with the invisible spiritual of Hollywood’s beautiful people. This darkly comic, ultimately horrific depiction of humanity in extremis borrows a singed page from Nathanael West's classic novel, The Day of the Locust. In that novel, written in 1939, West depicted Hollywood as a near-mythic town of broken dreams. Even if only metaphorically. A city so devoid of love and undeserving of redemption it has the burn. David Cronenberg finds contemporary Hollywood to be at least as monstrously grotesque as West’s 1930s vision; but true to its mythological roots (the gods had the power to turn favored mortals into constellations – literal maps of stars) Maps to the Stars leaves open the possibility for redemption.
Maps to the Stars is available on DVD & Blu-ray
To read the complete review, visit: Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For