A brutal, crackling and savage Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars (2014) is also David Cronenberg’s return to the monster movie almost thirty years on from the release of The Fly (1986). This time, however, the monsters are plural and most of them are related. First up is Benjie (Evan Bird), an obnoxious child star preparing for his new movie, ‘Bad Babysitter 2’, following his first successful stint in rehab. This vile, barely pubescent smear on humanity takes every opportunity to verbally insult anyone he can, even calling his lawyer “a faggot Jew”. Visiting a terminally ill child in hospital, he complains that her disease isn’t Aids: “I mean non-Hodgkin’s – what’s that? Either you are or you aren’t.”
Benjie, we learn, comes from a family of monsters. His mother, Christina (Olivia Williams), is as nakedly ambitious as Anna Magnani in Visconti’s Bellissima (1951), though her savvy son is no ruined innocent. Benjie’s father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a self-help guru of awe-inspiring self-satisfaction (“If we name it, we can tame it.”) and pernicious parasitism. His concern for his family is consistently eclipsed by his forthcoming book tour. One of his most needy patients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading actress with an iconic mother who’s fighting for a role in a remake of her mom’s most famous movie. She recruits a new personal assistant – or “chore whore” as she would have it – unaware that Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a disturbed young woman with burn scars, is yet another Weiss family secret.
Agatha starts a relationship with Robert Pattinson’s Jerome, a jobbing limo driver and an aspiring actor. Alice in Wonderland meets a potential vampire, perhaps? This might be a stretch, but all the casting cultivates a fecund layer of meta-fun. Pattinson is involved in lines about a screenplay where, “We have to build a mythology”; Carrie Fisher, playing herself, sympathises with Havana about having an iconic mother; Bird, meanwhile, is a child star in real life, having appeared in Falling Skies and The Killing. Whereas 2012’s audiobook of Cosmopolis was stifled by its reverence for the Don DeLillo novel, Bruce Wagner’s screenplay is a thing of rancid beauty that stands on its own feet (although he did published a novel based on the screenplay when development proved suitably infernal).
A masterly dissection of a world he knows only too well, Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars isn’t so much the postmodern in-joke of Altman’s The Player (1992) as the nightmarish vision of a Hollywood red in tooth and claw that we saw in Barton Fink (1991) and The Day of the Locust (1975). There are spot-on gags aplenty and some many insider-pleasing jibes – “You know, Harvey is Harvey.” – but this is also a Gothic fairytale with the ghosts of the non-famous haunting the swimming pools and luxury villas. The Weiss family and Havana together would be enough for Sophocles to shrug his shoulders and walk away in despair. Their cupidity and utter devotion to money and celebrity is matched only by their complacent self-delusion. This is a world where everything – sex, drugs and murder – is factored into the fame game.
The Hollywood sign looms over the site of a burned house like a threat more than a promise; Agatha kneels in quasi-religious devotion before the cement handprints on Hollywood Boulevard, whilst the Weiss family live in almost a literal glass house: “Your father believes we should live exposed,” Christina states. Hollywood enjoys a bit of self-flagellation and the older cohort play their roles with a sadomasochistic glee. Moore is a hysteric who never lets her advantage out of sight, whilst Cusack is at as his most lizard-like. (Stafford is a man with an answer for everything, but none of which answers the question.) Maps to the Stars knows exactly where it’s going, carefully breaking every rule in the book. After carefully constructing his crystal kingdom, Cronenberg launches his stones with dark, mischievous joy.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.