Monday, September 22, 2014

'Maps To The Stars' (2014) directed by David Cronenberg

You can't beat a hallucinogenic trip around the Hollywood hills.  We expect the rich and famous to exist in a heightened, alien world and so there's perverse satisfaction to be had in watching it all come crashing down; mashed-up brains dripping from plastic surgery perfect noses.  Film-makers from Billy Wilder to David Lynch have ploughed this fertile territory, mixing up vicious cocktails of narcissism, delusion and cruelty.  Now David Cronenberg joins them on his Maps To The Stars.

With a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, intimately familiar with Hollywood life away from the flashbulbs, this is cinema with bite, intent on scraping away the artifice to reveal the horrors that lie behind fluorescent smiles.  The film begins, like so many Hollywood fables do, with a girl getting off a bus.  She blinks in the light, breathing in as if inhaling the potential in the air.  This is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), but we soon learn she's no innocent ingĂ©nue.

Agatha is the stone tossed into the Hollywood pond and her waves that disrupt the lives of a cast of familiar LA types.  There's established star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), desperately trying to appear young enough to be cast in leading roles.  At the other end of the scale is troubled child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), amoral, spoiled and fresh out of rehab.  His parents Stafford and Christina (John Cusack & Olivia Williams) are wrapped up in questionable acts of psychotherapy and anxious helicopter parenting.  We also meet Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), part-time actor and writer, full-time limo driver for whom "everything is research."  

We quickly realise that these people are fucked up beyond repair, hungrily chasing the carrot of fame, suffering from self-medicated mental illness and plagued by hallucinations and ghosts. Pitiful though they are it's next to impossible to feel sorry for them.  Wagner's script takes a shark-like pleasure in putting these people through the wringer and we cackle ghoulishly at their pain.  And why shouldn't we?

Whereas Lynch went for the genuinely nightmarish in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, in Maps To The Stars Cronenberg settles on camp.  This is a film where creepy ghost children show up dressed in spooky costumes, intoning cryptic sing-songy remarks to the terrified celebs.  It's more cheesy than scary, as if even the ghosts of Hollywood are shallow, self-involved and unimaginative.

Cronenberg has left behind the body horror of his earlier career, but replaced pulsating tangles of flesh, blood and cum with disturbing mental mutants.  Prime among them is Julianne Moore's Havana Segrand, a broken human being who regresses to a huffy toddler when she cannot have what she wants.  There's something of the uncanny valley about her, something sinister incubating behind that glossy hair and too-perfect smile.

Ironically, the most likeable character in all this is the scarred, murderous, schizophrenic pyromaniac Agatha.  She's borne the brunt of casual cruelty and though she's as broken as the rest at least she's a sympathetic sort of broken.  Against stiff competition, Wasikowski's performance emerges as the most impressive within the film, combining shy, gangly awkwardness with cunning and drive  Within a cast of characters play-acting their desires and emotions she stands alone as one who genuinely feels, even if it is an extremely warped way.

Given this distortion of emotions and desire, it's appropriate that Cronenberg and Wagner's recurring narrative motif is incest.  Siblings burn with secret, forbidden passions for each other, children lust for their mothers, therapists draw out forgotten (and implied to be false) memories of child abuse.  This interbreeding serves to distance these people from the audience's reality, making us view the perfect little child star as a eugenics experiment, the human equivalent of a drooling, wheezing pedigree dog, bred for amusement and unable to survive in the wild.

Maps To The Stars is constructed like a house of cards, a precarious artifice liable to collapse at any moment.  Occasionally it feels a touch too silly, the characters so venal they strain the limits of believability.  But Wagner is writing from personal experience, claiming that the film isn't a satire, that "I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it."  Under Cronenberg's careful, precise direction we peer into this world like children hovering over an anthill, magnifying glass in hand.  

As the credits roll we can't help but wonder what it would be like to live this life, swimming in money but drowning in depression.  Worryingly, these awful people are the dreamers of dreams, pumping out the entertainment consumed by the rest of the world. Perhaps it's just that they bear the brunt of producing all this unreality, entirely natural that their lives disintegrate into melodrama, cheap horror and hoary old cliche.

Maps To The Stars is far from perfect but it's goddamn interesting, and interesting goes a hell of a long way in my books.


Maps To The Stars is released 26th September 2014

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