“Contrary to critics’ easy characterisation, it doesn’t have a satirical bone in its elegiac, messy, hysterical body,” says Maps to the Stars screenwriter Bruce Wagner about David Cronenberg’s newest film, and it’s a helpful start in trying to articulate and defend my own strong reaction to this film in light of its wider, polarising reception since its Cannes premiere earlier this year. It’s a film interested in excess rather than insight, and the finished product succeeds as an absurd dark comedy rather than an investigative takedown of Hollywood morals, a film not aiming for the incisive character study of the The Day of the Locust, but for something closer to the camp histrionics of Mommie Dearest. The vision of the sociopathic, insecure actors doing anything to cling on to the spotlight and the twisted, corrupting power and allure of Hollywood isn’t the subtext, it’s the text.
Ostensibly an ensemble piece, the film follows two different households.1 Julianne Moore plays Havana Sagrand, an actress on the decline, desperate to play the part her mother made famous in a remake, and receives physical and emotional therapy from self-help guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Weiss’ son Benji (Evan Bird) is an in-demand franchise teen star plagued with substance abuse problems, and is managed by stage mother Cristina (Olivia Williams). Mysterious and scarred stranger Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) comes to town, who may have connections to one or both of these households, and develops a relationship with chauffeur to the stars Jerome (Robert Pattinson – clearly a surrogate for screenwriter Wagner who was a chauffeur, and a wink to Pattinson’s role in the tonally similar, limousine-set Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s previous film).
Impressive straight away is the tone, so disquietingly off-kilter – with a low-humming soundtrack and quiet, stilted dialogue that sounds like no one really talks. Reminiscent of Cosmopolis, where even casual DeLillo fans were unsurprised to see how strangely his dialogue transfers to the screen, there’s an edge to the first hour that’s really effective, combined with the sparse and clinical mansions (with some inspired set design, the only things outside of slick, unused furniture are dead trees as avant-garde artwork) that doesn’t let you forget the film’s universe has been realised by one of the premier directors of science-fiction. Crucial also to the film is its timelessness, achieved not by avoiding styles and references but by the sheer randomness of them all – Jamie’s clothes are distinctly those of a Bieber/Austin Mahone type pre-teen idol, Cusack seems like a 1990s-style smug infomercial VHS peddler and Moore seems to take most of her cues from David Niven’s classic memoir Bring on the Empty Horses, his tales of aging starlet’s anxieties and Vivian Leigh’s psychotic meltdown, not to mention that there’s a child whose resemblance to Ron Howard is unlikely to be coincidental.
To go any further would lead to spoilers, but also be immaterial. It’s a plot-heavy film, but there aren’t many key events central to understanding the film, which is more concerned with the joys of unexpected twists and turns and the tone sets us up to apprehend shock moments, which are very much delivered. Also showcased are the unhinged performances. These vary slightly; I enjoyed Wasikowska’s mild-mannered, creepy (if typecast) performance, as well as the chilling, anti-performance of surely future American Horror Story antagonist Evan Bird as the troubled child star, so sensorially dulled by previous substance abuse and sexual experiences at 13 that he conveys this sociopathic ennui, his stunted behavioural development best illustrated when asking a child in hospital, “How did you get AIDS?”. Robert Pattinson is fine in a role that probably could have been bigger, or at least framed around being an outsider of sorts, the only vaguely redeemable character in the film, but one who still gets corrupted. John Cusack may be the weak link with some inconsistent characterisation, but he gets into the fun of it by the end. However, it’s Julianne Moore’s film through and through, a portrayal of desperation and savage opportunism that instantly ranks with the year’s best performances. It’s not the Good Acting that wins Oscars, but the all-out sort that make the most memorable turns, and miraculously we still identify somewhat with Havana – at her happiest moment of the film (and in light of what transpires to get her to that point), we have some of the most morally transgressive empathy a spectator could ever muster up, in one of the most off-colour but hilarious scenes of the year.
So returning to the issue of ‘satire’ – which just about every critic and press release for the film have latched onto – it’s hard to pin down the filmmakers’ intention with the film, which in turn makes it difficult to find one’s own subjective feeling, and there’s an elusive heart to this film that I can only comprehend in vague terms. It’s essentially Kenneth Anger’s landmark Hollywood Babylon filmed as a dark comedy.2 Just as many of the film’s characters are pursued doggedly by ghosts, so is the film and Hollywood in the collective public consciousness. The ghosts of Fatty Arbuckle and Johnny Stompanato, of Jayne Mansfield’s decapitated head – these influences are as immediate to the film as Lindsay Lohan or Justin Bieber, decades of trauma buried under the gloss and sheen of the bright lights. Bad things happen under the watch of the false prophet that is the Hollywood sign on the hills, and, as exaggerated as the film gets, it’s exaggerated by just enough to make it horrifying, while remaining within the realms of possibility. Hell, some of the more insane moments, like drownings in swimming pools or shocking acts of violence inside a Beverly Hills mansion would have been merely called ‘Saturday’ during the 1920s. Equally literalised as the ghost story is the theme of incest and nepotism among the Hollywood elite, that might be milked a little too much for shock value, but this is a film that deals in the obvious.
The ghost and incest plotlines do get muddled over the back half of the film to its detriment, and it loses a bit of its edge as it becomes too concerned with plot, but this is at the service of a pretty satisfying and bizarre conclusion before returning to the wonderfully camp, amateurish stars credit sequence that opened the film.3 It’s a film that isn’t about making new points or incisive satirical jabs, but rather finding tired stereotypes in Hollywood satires and exaggerating them to the point of absurdity, Cronenberg beating dead horses to find joy in the corpses themselves. Suggesting child actors have substance issues and behavioral development issues isn’t revelatory, instead they’re qualities almost implied by the shorthand of ‘child star’ for modern audiences. Likewise, scenes of interchangeable Hollywood producers whose negative traits are already assumed by the audience. This film doesn’t really subvert anything, and that’s its strong point. It takes it in the directions we assume it will from watching every other Hollywood satire ever made, and runs with those batons further than you’d imagine. And sure, that still might be ‘satirical’, but if so it isn’t a surgeon’s needle in its vivisection of Hollywood culture, but a bull in a china shop, attacking in broad and hammering strokes what is by now a very easy target.
For this reason it could said to be a film of low ambition, and it certainly isn’t Cronenberg’s smartest film. It is, however, his funniest. I recommend this film because it’s a pretty unique experience and vision that will be unlike any other film to come out this year; for me a great dark comedy handled with Cronenberg’s strong directorial instincts with Bruce Wagner’s “You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve seen” script that could only have come from many years working in the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory, not to mention the extreme performances the material brings out of the actors involved. There are also of plenty auteurist explorations to be made into the film in terms of Cronenberg’s broader thematic interests – Hollywood as a sick disease, and actors like Julianne Moore’s character like the parasites from Shivers deriving life-force from the misery of others. Furthermore, so many of his films concern the messy interplay between technology and the human body, and is there any more prevalent or literal example of this than process of cinema itself? But those arguments should and hopefully will be made in view of Cronenberg’s filmography in spite of its already minor fanfare. Despite the name recognition of talent in front of and behind the camera, it already looks like distributors and publicists are going to have a hard time finding this film its audience, so I hope this messy review of a messy film encourages you to check it out. It’s one of the year’s best.
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