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‘Maps to the Stars’ and ‘Cosmopolis’: The Latter-Day Madness of David Cronenberg

'Maps to the Stars' and 'Cosmopolis': The Latter-Day Madness of David Cronenberg

This article was produced as part of the New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

David Cronenberg has always been a Hollywood outsider. The now-acclaimed director’s career began far from the glitz and glamor of Southern California, with a series of disturbing psychological Indie genre films, pioneering sexual horror such as “Shivers” and “The Brood.” This was decades before the word “indie” had gained its hipster mystique and meant only “low budget B-movie.” You were not supposed to be proud of independent cinema; it was shameful and sordid. Yet Cronenberg made unique films without major stars and on tiny budgets. Slowly acclaim trickled in, showing that this young Canadian had a unique disturbing vision perfect for the growing horror genre.

He transitioned into mainstream successes with the 1980s, creating well-remembered horror classics such as “The Dead Zone” and “The Fly,” quickly making a name for himself as a master of gore and body horror. Flesh itself became Cronenberg’s medium, transforming it into hideous abstract new designs. When you thinks of Cronenberg you still imagine contorted human bodies and alien mandibles. Cronenberg fit the gore-hungry ’80s, making huge profits for his productions. Yet despite having attained industry clout as a dependable money maker, Cronenberg never moved to the warm climes of Los Angeles. 

He preferred the dreary skies, the cold modernist architecture, of his native Toronto, where he could continue to make his own kind of movies. They grew even more disturbed, only marketable to a select crowd who appreciated the Cronenberg way of turning the human condition (often literally) inside-out. “Naked Lunch” was weird even by Cronenberg’s already kinky filmography. It is impossible to imagine a mainstream studio putting their money behind a nonlinear psychedelic William S. Burroughs adaptation. And while Cronenberg’s art evolved, Hollywood increasingly relied upon blockbusters – standard scripts, reliable plots, with simple themes. The mainstream moved away from Cronenberg while Cronenberg moved away from it.

So for Cronenberg to actually go to Hollywood is a major break in tradition. He did not make his first film shot in the United States with usual Hollywood money, keeping his independence even while working only miles from the studio system. The film is “Maps to the Stars,” which made its US debut at the 52nd New York Film Festival, after a premiere at Cannes and an obligatory stop at the Toronto Film Festival, in Cronenberg’s usual stomping grounds. “Maps to the Stars” has Cronenberg arrive at the heart of mainstream celebrity stardom ready ready to tear the town apart with biting satire.

The characters of “Maps to the Stars” are a collection of badly damaged superstars, most of them using the vapidity of California trendiness and the superficiality of the industry to cover up their deep emotional scars. Julianne Moore plays Havana Segrand, a middle-aged actress whose career is fading as quickly as her looks. On the opposite end of his career, there is Benjie (Evan Bird) a Justin Beiber-esque child star just coming off his first stint of chemical addiction while his parents focus more on his career than his mental health. Between them is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman disfigured by scars whose return to Hollywood threatens to reveal the carefully hidden ghosts that some hoped would remain buried forever.

The film is in many ways a companion piece to Cronenberg’s 2012 satire, the inscrutable “Cosmopolis.” That film is set on the other side of the continent, in another cloistered bastion of power, among New York City’s financial brokers. “Cosmopolis” was a difficult movie, refusing to launch obvious attacks on ultra rich capitalists, and though many hoped it would pick up the banner of the fading Occupy movement, Cronenberg did not use the movie as a jolt to magnify failing liberal politics. Made almost near-incomprehensible thanks to an unlikable protagonist, complete lack of plot, and rambling dialog, “Cosmopolis” did not give the audience what it wanted. Nothing about “Cosmopolis” was simple or easy. Meanwhile “Maps to the Stars” plays for easy laughs with bawdy Hollywood humor, the easiest and lowest-hanging of satirical fruit. Its emotions and characters are easily reached, and far more easily enjoyed.

Those in love with Cronenberg’s great bloody features of the past may come away disappointed with both “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars.” The director has not made a proper body horror film in well over a decade; the true last example might be his cyberpunk poem on the weakness of reality, “eXistenZ.” But in avoiding the obvious tricks of biological corruption and the mutation of the flesh, Cronenberg has developed a more subtle satire. There may not be vaginas growing in anybody’s stomach, but the characters in these movies are just as diseased, and Cronenberg is still bathing in the repressed perversity of the world around him.

Two actors appear in both films: Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon. The higher-profile figure figure is the ex-vampire, now playing very different roles from his “Twilight” days. Pattinson had the leading role in “Cosmopolis” as Eric Packer, a typical Wall Street Master of the Universe. Nearly all of “Cosmopolis” involves a drive within Eric’s imperial court of digital power, a tricked-out stretch limousine en-route across Manhattan. In “Maps to the Stars,” Pattinson has been reduced to a minor supporting role. He now plays a wanna-be actor, Jerome, a mere servant driving the limo versus being driven in it. He is Agatha’s boyfriend, but Havana seduces him as a cruel display of domination over a younger rival. Pattinson goes from king to slave, from appearing in every scene to a mere sexual trophy in a battle between two greater characters.

“Cosmopolis” does offer, between its pretentious diction, a biting critique of hyper-capitalism. Packer is a conduit of the 21st century cyber-economy, a hypercharged world of endless currents of information swirling by, as currencies rise and fall. Having conquered the world, he can own anything he could ever want. His limo, more a mobile throne, can provide any possible pleasure and is the ultimate defense against the outside world. He enjoys ridiculous feats of hedonism such as owning a former Soviet nuclear bomber. Tragically he cannot fly it with its destructive payload thanks to the meddling common sense of the State Department. Eric has no greater philosophy other than owning, desiring, and consumption. His life has no meaning beyond pleasure, and he has already experienced every pleasure. There is nothing left to thrill this character except for one final pleasure, a most Cronenbergian drive towards self-destruction.

For all of these obscene details and many more, Pattinson plays the character with an alien quiet, twitching slightly from repressed urges. Seemingly bored by the swirl of bonds and futures, Packer allows his entire company to collapse in a single day thanks to an unpredicted move in the Chinese yuan. He never makes a move to save himself from an assassin threatening him in the climax. Instead Eric sits with the same bored expression he always wears, as if death has no greater meaning than yet another product he has purchased. Eric is capitalism to the infinite power. It is a system of constant growth, where the drive to own things and consume is its own reward. This character has already consumed everything there is to taste. Death, especially death for no particular purpose, is one final act of owning.

While “Cosmopolis” was painfully surreal, “Maps to the Stars” can play to more simple emotions of film-going: comedy, horror. Hollywood is a conservative industry in many ways. Still so much of it relies upon networking and connections – entirely human powers. Compare that to the inhuman world of Wall Street where billions of trades occur in unbelievable speed. Sums of money beyond your comprehension are passing hands faster that you can decode the individual words in this sentence, powered by magnificent sophisticated constructs of unimaginable data processing power. Algorithms designed by the finest of mathematicians plow through millions of lines of information in seconds, making decisions far removed from the terrestrial world in which we inhabit. Cyber-capitalism itself is terrifying. It all sounds like a nightmarish plot point from a cyberpunk novel. Wall Street does not even exist within our reality anymore – what kind of an alien creature could represent this world? 

Then what is Hollywood? A few phone calls, a cocktail party, and a threesome. Influence is determined by irrational yet human forces, popularity, box office draw, sexual appeal. We might be horrified by the lurid details, but we understand them. In fact, we are entertained by celebrity drama. We buy and sell their life stories as a new dimension of entertainment. Their entire lives are a character we consume, not just the roles they play on movies and TV.

For those reasons characters of “Maps to the Stars” are much easier to sympathize with. Eric Packer is a freak of the financial world, living within a pocket dimension of finance far from our existence. Benjie, Havana, and Agatha all suffer real human desires of inferiority, confusion, and can actually experience fear.

Cronenberg left his best skills at home with “Cosmopolis”: his mastery of horror. It may be been deeply disturbing on an intellectual and philosophical level, but it lacks the visceral thrill a great movie-watching experience requires. “Maps to the Stars,” despite long comic sections, is able to flip within seconds from mere parody to terrifying. One second Havana might be her usual superficial self, and then suddenly the ghost of Clarise appears floating in a bathtub, slowly tearing through this character’s entire defenses. Long-time Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore just plays a few notes and suddenly the comedy is gone, replaced by primal terror.

Between the those alarming moments, though, “Maps to the Stars” gets dangerously close to being as shallow as the universe it is portraying. Everybody knows the jokes about celebrities: they’re selfish, they eat weird health food, they name-drop Harvey Weinstein. Films have been mocking Hollywood since the very beginning of cinema. Any audience can approach this material. However, one may assume these humorous attempts at roasting Hollywood a mere repeat of things we have heard before, playing up on-the-nose cliches of Hollywood royalty and nothing more. The films show within Cronenberg’s universe are just as empty and shallow: a raunchy “Meatballs”-rip-off for Benjie, and a bland-looking French New Wave film that Havana’s mother stars in. The former feels like a movie three decades out of date, and the latter barely registers as parody. How could a film about movies seem so oblivious to the kind of movies that audiences actually watch? That is because the satire of “Maps to the Stars” is not in the health food, the Weinsteins, or the sex. All of that is just window dressing for the real target: the dehumanizing nature of the industry, turning actors from real people into products.

Havana Segrand is the character most connected to the low satire of Hollywood. She’s cruel to her assistant, lost in her own ego so badly that she can jump for joy upon the news another actress’s son has died, and she eats so much funky health food she cannot take a shit. However, she is not the villain of this movie. If anything, the phantoms in her mind show she is just another victim, only her story is much further along than Benjie’s. She was possibly raped by her mother, and shares her abuse on national television. According to Hollywood law, her victimization makes for a fantastic story, one that can be used to sell an inspiring story.

The true villainous role belongs to John Cusack’s Dr. Stafford Weiss, Benjie’s father. Weiss can only view his son as, at best, a solid investment, and at worst a nuisance for his upcoming book tour. Ironically this character is a self-help guru, yet his real life and family are tumorous masses of complexes. When Agatha returns to LA, Stafford cannot afford the time to work with her or try to heal her psychic wounds and the wounds upon his family. She is an inconvenience. She does not fit the happy narrative he is selling. The Weiss family is a business, selling human products. Benjie and his preteen sexuality are just the latest and most successful product. That the boy is tormented by visions of dead children is not a serious family crisis, it’s a manufacturing defect.

What escape do Agatha and Benjie have? Their reality is completely mad. But the obsessive fantasies they share seem no better. Their fantasies crystallize around a marriage ritual based and an odd poem, the only chance they have to escape the dead children that haunt them. Agatha’s character is the only hint in these movies of David Cronenberg’s old love of bodily mutation. Perhaps not on the same level as Jeff Goldblum’s body parts rotting away in “The Fly,” the folds of her scar tissue ignite his camera with the same fetishistic mania that he has given his audiences for decades. Benjie’s face is completely pure, yet he seems just as crooked of a human being. All of the creatures here are the ultimate offspring of the distorted worlds of their environment.

The final scene of “Maps to the Stars” is an intense spiritual climax, Cronenberg seems to be truly in love with his characters and their choice here, despite its disturbing implications. This rivals the finale of his emotional masterpiece Dead Ringers, also about two lost characters turning to each other in the most self-destructive of ways. Only David Cronenberg could make something so disturbing so desperately sad. I doubt another filmmaker will ever come along with the same ability to represent the most hidden and feared parts of human nature.

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