David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars sees Hollywood as a disease

Maps to the Stars places elements of ghost story, black comedy and Hollywood satire in a screwball framework.

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Maps to the Stars (18)
dir: David Cronenberg

Sympathy for the devil is all very well but David Cronenberg was the first film-maker to display affection for the parasite and tenderness towards the tumour. He hasn’t made a movie that could be categorised fully as horror since his squelchy 1986 version of The Fly but the horror label stuck early on. Arguably his best film – and certainly his scariest – is The Brood (1979), in which a woman’s anger manifests itself in the form of hammer-wielding, monkey-faced children who can’t be placated by the threat of an early night and no pudding.

Prior to that, it was viruses that became characters in their own right. In Shivers (1975), a deadly STD has aphrodisiac properties that guarantee its survival. In Rabid (1977), a woman emerges from surgery to find a bloodthirsty phallus growing in her armpit. Odd that what was shocking in the 1970s must resemble an average night’s viewing for a generation raised on Embarrassing Bodies.

In the era of hysterical slasher movies, Cronenberg was always distinguished by his preference for the clinical. His temperate voice can be heard in the plea of one of the twin gynaecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) in Dead Ringers (1988), who yearns for a beauty contest devoted to the inside of the body: “You know? Best spleen, most perfectly developed kidneys.” His approach to biological anomalies and outrages is one of calm beguilement. He never loses his head, even when, as in his 1981 telepathy thriller Scanners, the characters lose theirs. Dead Ringers represented an important step because its horrors were largely psychological. So where did all the goo go?

Far from being thwarted in the shift away from pure horror, Cronenberg’s nastier side was sublimated. Violence in his recent work erupts infrequently but in little pockets of concentrated excess. His latest film, Maps to the Stars, contains one supremely gruesome moment but concerns itself chiefly with the metaphorical pustules and lesions that break out whenever secrets are buried. The movie even has a blandly menacing self-help guru, Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), whose bestseller is called Secrets Kill. That’s not the half of it: secrets here pollute through the generations and even into the afterlife. Not for the first time, this most uninhibited of directors takes as his subject the malignant consequences of repression.

Maps to the Stars places elements of ghost story, black comedy and Hollywood satire in a screwball framework. Links between the characters are revealed gradually. There is Stafford’s son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a peevish movie star just out of rehab and poised for a comeback before his 14th birthday. Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a fading, febrile actress desperate to reprise a part played originally by her late mother. “Every daughter should have that opportunity,” says a clench-jawed Carrie Fisher – who is not only the offspring of Debbie Reynolds but the author of the semi-autobiographical industry novel Postcards from the Edge, adapted into a toothless 1990 film.

There’s another double in-joke in the role of Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a budding screenwriter working as a limo driver. This movie’s writer, Bruce Wagner, used to do just that, while Pattinson spent the bulk of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012) as the chauffeured, rather than the chauffeur.

This is indicative of the echo chamber in which the film dwells. Movies are all that these people have. Visiting a terminally ill fan in hospital, Benjie coolly reels off his box office grosses. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a whey-faced waif just off the bus to Los Angeles, pitches a screenplay about her family trauma; she thinks that it’ll make a great indie “if it’s not too pretentious”. So completely has she converted her suffering into storytelling that the nerve endings alerting her to pain are virtually dead, like the burned skin she keeps under her long, vampy leather gloves. When a crew member on a science-fiction film set glimpses her scarred neck, he thinks it’s a mediocre make-up job. (“Get someone to put some colour on that thing!”)

Any satire in Wagner’s script is rather on the mild side. Twitter as a networking tool, Scientology as a career move, rehab wings for drug-addicted PAs, fans who pay through the nose for A-list faeces – these ideas are either reality already or within sniffing distance. Energy comes mainly from the poisonous glee of Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year. Moore makes the character’s inner fury and outer serenity simultaneously accessible to us without either predominating. Her carefree external laughter cannot extinguish the screams inside.

Maps to the Stars charts the admirable tenacity of disease as much as Rabid or The Fly does, only now Hollywood is the body through which cancerous cells move inexorably, attacking a feeble immune system. Cronenberg’s preoccupations haven’t altered noticeably from Shivers, through his 1990s films of taboo novels (Naked Lunch, Crash), and on to his mid-2000s thrillers starring Viggo Mortensen as two different kinds of infiltrator (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). Even A Dangerous Method, his 2011 picture about the birth of psychoanalysis, includes a line delivered by Freud to Jung as their ship approaches America: “Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” Cronenberg’s cinema has endured because it is profound and playful but also because it assumes fresh manifestations as readily as a virus adapting to a series of new hosts. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris