David Cronenberg's latest film is one of his strangest yet. The Canadian director, who began his career making lowish budget “body horror” movies, has long since infiltrated the mainstream. Now, his work has big name stars attached and very high production values. That doesn't mean he has become any less subversive.
Map To The Stars is a film about Hollywood and the hollow narcissism of contemporary celebrity culture. It has some of the satirical flavour of Nathanael West's Day Of The Locust and some of the warped, dream-like feel of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.
Audiences who don't know his work may find it a very jarring experience. It is a film with big stars (Robert Pattinson, Julianne Moore and John Cusack among them) and lavish settings (the homes of the rich and famous) but still has cultish B-movie like quality.
At first, we think we are watching an acerbic and sour comedy about characters so obsessed with their next movie or book launch that they've lost all sense of morality and perspective. The humour, though, is very barbed.
This is also an Oedipal melodrama touching on incest, murder and family betrayal. For good measure, Cronenberg also throws in ghosts and, latterly, some of the very visceral and bloody elements found in his early work. The end result is overwrought but utterly fascinating.
The film begins with Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arriving in LA by bus. She seems like yet another star struck ingenue who has come to town to get closer to the stars she follows on Twitter. Robert Pattinson is Jerome Fontana, the good looking young driver she hires, a chauffeur who is also an aspiring actor and writer.
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In fact, Weiss has past history in Hollywood. She was responsible for a mysterious fire years before that has left her physically scarred. Her family wants nothing to do with her. Her brother Benjie (played with malicious glee by Evan Bird) is a supremely brattish, foul mouthed child star with a drug problem
Wasikowska gets a job as PA to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an ageing Hollywood actress struggling to get roles and haunted by the memory of her Lana Turner-like mother.
The performances here are terrific, capturing the comic side of their characters but also their insecurity and extreme status anxiety. Moore, in particular, excels as a woman who combines diva-like hauteur, New Age flakery, extreme neurosis and ruthlessness.
As Dr Stafford Weiss, John Cusack has a real streak of nastiness as a smug life style guru whose own family situation makes that of the House of Atreus look straightforward by comparison. Pattinson (in his second film with Cronenberg after Cosmopolis) brings a sly humour to his role as the young actor on the make, genial but as much on the make as anyone else. Wasikowska is wonderfully detached and calm as the angel of destruction.
Cronenberg doesn't show much affection for a Hollywood that he must know from the inside. Young actresses dismiss their older peers as “dinosaurs” and “totally menopausal” while the older actors compete viciously with one another for roles. Director Paul Schrader described his recent Bret Easton Ellis-scripted The Canyons as a film about “cold dead people in a cold dead world.”
Map To The Stars is something similar. Its protagonists are all equally obnoxious but the film takes a perverse joy is showing up their shortcomings. This is high class soap opera with a cerebral twist. Its sudden shifts in tone are disconcerting but it is funny, ghoulish and has plenty of satirical bite.