NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Unlike the bulk of David Cronenberg’s recent work, Maps to the Stars isn’t based on a pre-existing property – but it’s still a melding of his vision with another creator’s, screenwriter Bruce Wagner, whose eclectic CV includes credits on A Nightmare on Elm St 3, Wild Palms, and Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and some bitter, funny Hollywood insider novels. This sets out to evoke the multi-character tapestry films of Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson (who gets a namecheck) – down to the casting of a splendidly maudlin and self-involved Julianne Moore – as it follows a disparate bunch of Los Angeles denizens who turn out to be parts of two oddly intertwined incestuous, violence-haunted families. But it’s done in a chilly style which evokes the forensic Cronenberg of Dead Ringers and Crash – it’s possible that the jigsaw pieces add up, but they don’t make a pretty picture.
Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn-scarred young woman, shows up in Los Angeles by bus and uses an internet-forged connection with Carrie Fisher (herself) to land a PA job with semi-star Havana Segrand (Moore), who is desperate to land the role of her dead mother, a short-lived 70s star (Sarah Gadon), in a remake of something that looks a lot like Robert Rossen’s Lilith from the b/w clip we see. Agatha has been in exile in Florida since an incident when it seems she tried to burn her younger brother to death. Benjie (Evan Bird), the brother, is the star of a hideous-seeming I Was a Bad Babysitter franchise, and is out of rehab at thirteen with a terrifying sense of entitlement. The siblings’ parents are Stafford (John Cusack) and Christina (Olivia Williams) – Stafford is an infomercial self-help guru whose mix of ego- and physical massage evokes the psychoplasmics of The Brood, and Christina is going quietly mad in their minimalist mansion. Also in the mix is Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a chauffeur who is also an actor/writer and gets involved with Agatha, then claimed by Havana. Children die offscreen – a kid Benjie visits in hospital, the son of Havana’s rival – but appear as ghosts to Benjie, just as Havana is tormented by an apparition of her mother, who seems to resent being tagged as an abuser in what might be a play for talkshow sympathy. In the end, more horrible things happen – suicide by self-immolation, bludgeoning with a Genie award – and the siblings, revealed to be the children of siblings, complete a marriage ceremony/suicide on the burned-out site of their old home.
Wagner throws in tough, funny lines and various industry creeps stare out at us, essentially lying to our faces, and there’s a weird way that the truly appalling behaviour of Benjie – a junior misogynist/anti-semite who shoots his only friend’s dog while playing silly gun games – is funny in the way we take his screen character’s antics (which we never see, though the poster gives a good idea) not to be. Moore is priceless in a moment where she feigns sympathy for a rival whose personal tragedy has freed up the plum role she wants to take, but the humour here is so dark that only tactful presentation sells it. Elements from early Cronenberg float up to the surface intriguingly: a love scene between Jerome and Agatha where she calmly tells him where to expect scars when he undresses her evokes the unconventional erotic charge of Shivers and Rabid, the weird Hollywoody names (characters called Azita Wachtel, Sterl Carruth and Damien Javitz) hark back to Adrian Tripod and Nola Carveth, and the moments of chilly transcendence amid horror feel like the work of the Cronenberg who has tended to submerge his character in projects like Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. The Wagner who had Freddie Krueger murder Zsa Zsa Gabor and let future Oliver Stone gloat about his theories being proved right shows up here too, with microstarlets who think that anyone who’s twenty-three is menopausal, digs at ‘space soaps’ like Battlestar Galactica (an assistant spots Agatha’s scars and assumes she’s wearing a knobbly face alien make-up) and characters whose careers and characters make you scroll through your trivia database for possible real-life models.