Maps To The Stars (2014)
‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ is the mantra of David Cronenberg’s new film, a corrosive glance at the denizens and degradations of the beautifully adored and venomously vacuous. Working from a script from renowned Los Angeles wordsmith Bruce Wagner Maps To The Stars plants another seed of satirical savagery in the mould of Altman’s The Player, the Coen’s Barton Fink, Vincette Minelli’s The Bad & The Beautiful or the more recent Tropic Thunder, biting that hands that feeds with a filmmaker reveling in the tortured tribulations of Tinseltown. What sets this film apart from its predecessors is Cronenberg’s gleeful unpeeling of the rotting core at the heart of the film business, pitching the entire gamut of mythmakers as poisonous narcissists, with every layer – agents, actors, directors, executives, producers – all squatting in some Dantesque sun bleached Gehenna, willing to sell their very soul to prosper in the city of fallen angels. When it comes to DNA strands of Hollywood shining a dark mirror into its own festering conscience Maps To The Stars is lensed in the tragic and tyrannical mould of Mullholland Drive, rather than the flippant mocking of Sullivan’s Travels.
The film follows a half dozen characters as their careers and lives intertwine in a nest of serpentine egoism. New starry eyed arrival Agatha (Mia Wasikowski, effortlessly isolated) arrives in LA, afflicted with mysterious burn scars she begins a remote romance with chauffeur cum aspiring actor and screenwriter Jerome (Robert Pattinson). Jerome strategically takes a real shine to her once she lands a job as personal assistant to Havana Segrand (a frantic Julianne Moore, ironically likely to get an Oscar nomination next February), a highly strung fading star who desperately needs a starring role to resurrect her faltering career. Her masseuse / psychiatrist / Jungian primal screen therapist is the slithering Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a shuddering salesman whose hollow metaphysical platitudes are as desolate as the minimalist décor of his Beverley Hills mansion. His wife Christina (Olivia Williams) closely manages the career of their brat-child star Benjie (Evan Bird) who is wrestling with a rehab stint and being raised as a thoroughly hateful brat, nervously assuring the studio that he’s clean as he signs up for the latest instalment of the family friendly franchise Bad Babysitter. All are haunted by ghosts of the past, some of which are less incorporeal than their distressed mental states seem to suggest, promising a biblical reckoning in the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.
What a bunch of absolute charmers, as sour as a widowed lemon grove it doesn’t get more acidic than this, as Cronenberg turns the bile up to choking proportions in this scabrous, ruthless vision of the contemporary film industry in moral disarray. There is not one human trait which could charitably be described as unmotivated in Maps To The Stars, as the venal, self obsessed dwellers discard or exploit their brood with callous indifference, a cycle of abuse which has spun for numerous nepotistic generations. Like much of Cronenbergs pate period work this is another frigid film, a coolly measured dissection of the entertainment world’s body politic, neatly dissembled in his sterile dissection dish. Whilst it is clearly a comedy with a pitch black heart it is not exactly the sort of laugh-riot which prompts rolling in the aisles, offering more grimacing grunts of approval at the observations and activities of these loathsome individuals (seriously, the Bieber alike and all his peers could die in a particularly prolonged fire and the rest of humanity would rejoice in this cleansing annihilation of their gene pool) before in the final act the moral abyss which has only been grazed through Wagner’s supernatural leaning script plunges deep into squalid violence and taboo bruising sexuality.
Cronenberg has built an impressive cult of long devoted accomplices over his four decade career, working with his wife Denise on costume duties, Howard Shore 0n muted musical arrangements (well, muted in comparison to his more mainstream franchise gigs), production designer Carol Spier, longtime editor Ronald Sanders (who has cut every one of his film since Scanners in 1981) and digitally attuned cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. There’s a distinctive, flattened dynamic range to his films which like a Fincher composition can be spotted at a million pixellated paces, moulding a very flat, shallow-focus plane which is carefully cut around his principals modulated performances – Wasikowski is particularly modulated in this film for a character with a particularly painful history. This precipitates that cold, distant feel to his films which eerily complements his downplaying of emotional reverence, of not yielding to an audiences hunger for empathy and identification, gestating his human subjects as cogs in some self replicating machine whom follow their impregnated motions within society.
This spartan approach indicates little in the way of being pushed into how to think, of what he’s trying to ‘say’ in his movies, an aesthetic which permits individual floodgates of meaning and musings in the eye of the beholder. This failure to commit leaves a lingering and slightly hollow taste to his work, a slightly disquieting feeling of something missing as the mechanistic plots arc through their predetermined movements – like Cosmopolis, A History Of Violence and much of the last two decades of work its abundantly clear where the tale will end from a very early vantage point. Nevertheless some DNA strands emerge between the mind and the body, this being Cronenberg the film has a rather ghoulish fascination with bodily functions which are not always easy to stomach, the violence for the most part remains at a minimum aside from a few incendiary incidents. Maps To The Stars is Cronenberg’s cartography of Hollywood as a land wreathed in incest and vacuous vanity, haunted by ghosts and infected with demons;