In a particularly memorable moment in Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s seminal deconstruction of Hollywood, Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond intones the iconic line ‘alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close up’. In David Cronenberg’s new semi-satire of that very same town, however, no one is ready for any sort of close up. Linger on the profoundly disturbed and disturbing characters of Maps to the Stars for too long, and it is doubtful that you’ll see anything good. As is his wont, Cronenberg has created a cast who manage to make an audience not just uncomfortable with the world of the film, but also within their own skins. No other director manages to make the human body look quite so unpleasant to inhabit, and it is this visceral disgust combined with a disconcerting psychological element that is almost guaranteed to leave an audience feeling uneasy long after the credits roll.
Our entry point into this twisted Tinseltown is Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a girl with a mysterious backstory and severe burns, travelling to LA from Florida to attempt to make it in the town and reconcile with her estranged family. Along the way, she ends up working as a ‘chore whore’ for fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a past-her-prime actress with horrific mummy issues. The two women are linked through fire, with Segrand’s mother (played as a young woman by Sarah Gadon) having burned to death in a house fire long ago. Now she is vying for the lead role in a remake of the film that made her mother’s name. These are serious psychological issues being tackled by Bruce Wagner’s script, and to call Maps a ‘Hollywood satire’ seems somewhat disingenuous. Undoubtedly, it paints a disdainful picture of the movie business, but, aside from Robert Pattinson’s limo driver/aspiring writer-actor, the problems faced by the characters are very real, albeit grossly warped by money and fame.
On the subject of the characters, every performance is absolutely top-drawer. To call them awards-worthy seems ridiculous when talking about a film like this, but each actor is on superb form, most notably Moore and Evan Bird, playing haunted child star Benjie Weiss. Cronenberg had reportedly expressed fears that no kid had the intensity or emotional range to play this deeply troubled character, but Bird is electric. He owns every scene he’s in, whether it’s through being despicable in the way only the new breed of Bieber-esque stars can be or through being frighteningly recognisable as nothing more than a frightened child with distant, self-obsessed parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams).
The psychological state these people find themselves in is not helped by the frequent appearances of ghostly hallucinations. Havana and Benjie are both plagued by these visions, which Cronenberg directs as being almost physically real. This lack of certainty feeds effectively into the rest of the film, never more obviously or brilliantly than in the shocking finale, where it remains largely unclear what is actually happening and what is in the mind.
Maps to the Stars is a brilliantly ugly film, both in its visuals and its events and its provocation of such a primal, physical reaction alongside its unrelenting emotional horrors is enough to secure its position as possibly Cronenberg’s finest film to date. Bold, eerie, and caked with discomfort, it forces your gaze to the screen and refuses to let you go. It’s a horrible masterpiece.