Maps to the Stars (2014)

Poster for Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s latest film is a strange hybrid beast. It’s a Hollywood satire (or perhaps rude farce) about the vanity, venality, and stupidity of Hollywood stars, agents, hangers-on, and wannabes, but it’s also a heart-rending melodrama about hidden family secrets and abuse, which bleeds into horror and then shoots right into fatalistic Greek tragedy. The constant shifting of tones and genres makes it tricky to get a handle on. It’s almost like looking at a kaleidoscope.

Julianne Moore is Havana Segrand, daughter of a Hollywood star who died in a fire at a young age. Havana became a star herself, but now her star is fading. She wants to play the part her mother played in a remake of her mother’s most famous movie. Evan Bird is the child star of the Bad Babysitter franchise, and he’s just come out of rehab for narcotics abuse. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a phoney New Age life coach whose clients include Havana. Mia Wasikowska is Agatha — a victim of bad burn scars, which ends up earning her a job as an assistant to Havana, who associates the scars and thus Agatha with her mother. Agatha wants to write a screenplay about an incestuous brother and sister, and she tries to enlist the help of wannabe actor and writer Jerome (Robert Pattinson).

All of these characters except Jerome end up being interconnected in some surprising ways, and there’s actually an element of metafiction to how the story coils around itself. Indeed, one cute bit of self-reference comes when Jerome gets a bit part in a science fiction television show called Blue Matrix. That was the show produced by Frank Langella in the outrageous Hollywood melodrama, I’m Losing You, which was produced by Cronenberg and written and directed by Bruce Wagner, who wrote the screenplay for Map to the Stars. But that’s just a little joke that doesn’t really have any bearing on the film. Still, it’s typical of the humor of both films that when Agatha shows up on the set of Blue Matrix, one of the production crew spots the burn scars on her face and thinks its alien makeup for the show.

It’s a creepy film, even though on the surface it’s sort of a comedy. The phoniness and game-playing of all the characters becomes sinister, and Cronenberg shoots things in a way that creates an air of menace even in the most inane moments. Even the closeups seem subtly off, with heads looking just slight distorted. The deeper structure of the plot, in which the younger characters seem to be reliving the tragedies of their parents, creates a sense of fatalism. There’s a poem by the French surrealist Paul Éluard that’s recited by various characters throughout the film, including one dead character seen in a vision, and I wasn’t sure what the connection was, although the poem itself, even in English, is strangely beautiful.

It’s all very weird and disturbing. Great performances all around, and I haven’t even mentioned Olivia Williams, who is a favorite of mine and gets turned into a suffering gargoyle of bad parenting. It’s a richly resonant device, whatever it’s ultimately up to. The characters are consumed by their pasts, and farce becomes horrific tragedy. Not sure whether it’s entirely successful, but it sure is a hell of thing to watch.

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