Maps to the Stars makes an overt statement about Hollywood: it’s insane. The film tells the story of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a minor actress who is down on her luck and living in the shadow of her actress mother’s legacy. In her attempts to get cast in a remake of the cult film that made her mother famous, she becomes the conduit for a series of events surrounding the Weiss family. The father, author and spiritual healer, Stafford (John Cusack), is her personal counsellor. Son Benjie (Evan Bird), a monster child star who is just out of rehab shares Havana’s agent. His manager, and mother, Christina (Olivia Williams), is a bundle of neuroses, mostly due to her estranged daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who after being seriously burned and then committed to an asylum, unbeknownst to them all, has come back to Hollywood and is working as Havana’s personal assistant.
The insanity in the lives of these Hollywood denizens is reflected through the disjointed narrative. It’s all fuzzy and open to interpretation: Are Agatha’s burns from an accident, or were they by design? Is the ghost of Havana’s mother real, or just in her mind? Was she actually sexually abused as a child? Or is it a ploy for fame, or even a false memory?
Cronenberg, who has previously made films about surreal or altered perceptions (Existenz, Naked Lunch, Videodrome, etc.) and presented fantastic dark realities has also created more realistic milieus (History of Violence, Spider and Cosmopolis). The combination of these two interests – gritty realism and unknowable, inner worlds – in Maps to the Stars creates an even more disconcerting film than his older fantasy/sci-fi narratives. The internal conflicts and barely supressed madness of the characters in Maps to the Stars, (in the place of literal or figurative monsters), compel them to act in unreal ways.
Maps to the Stars is art cinema; the editing and direction is jarring and confusing. The film jumps from scene to scene with a jazz-like disrespect for standard rules of pacing and continuity. Over-the-top scenes of violence end abruptly, followed by flat, mundane events or conversations. Time passes chronologically, but with few markers to establish its speed.
In a number of ways this feels like a David Lynch production; it is set in a surreal LA, has really peculiar timing and treats the extraordinary as mundane and vice versa. There are no log ladies or backwards-talking dwarves, but you will spend half the film trying to work out whether you missed something or if Cronenberg is just being intentionally obtuse (it’s the latter). There’s an oblique humour here, though mostly directed at Hollywood and the types who occupy it. A lot of the conversations are enacted in rapid-fire biz-speak using empty power phrases. The characters are painfully isolated, alone and frightened. Yet somehow that’s as funny as it is concerning.
At this year’s Cannes festival Maps to the Stars was nominated for a Palme d’Or and Juliane Moore won the award for best actress – both honours were well deserved and it’s likely to collect a few more awards. It’s a strange, dark ride into a nightmarish interpretation of Hollywood, by a proudly independent filmmaker who generally doesn’t have much to do with the place.
Maps to the Stars is out now at Cinema Nova and Dendy Newtown. Watch the trailer here.