The Films of 2015: Maps to the Stars

Satire has never been David Cronenberg’s strong suit.  He is not without a keen sense of humor, and nearly all of his films have some tinge of black comedy to them, but Cronenberg’s comedy derives from the absurdity and irrationality of individual desire rather than the mechanisms of systems and institutions.  So his latest, Maps to the Stars, doesn’t really succeed as a satire of Hollywood.  It does succeed as a Hollywood horror movie in the tradition of Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, Sunset Boulevard, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and pitilessly dark, it’s his best film since Eastern Promises.   
Cronenberg’s Hollywood, which comes to us via screenwriter Bruce Wagner, is populated by the usual suspects—narcissistic actors, charlatan self-help gurus, unhinged fans, pre-pubescent drug addicts.  The two movie stars on which the plot centers are Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who, as she enters her fifties, is desperate to prove that she’s still bankable; and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a spoiled child actor who, at thirteen, already fears being usurped by his ten-year-old co-star.  Havana has her heart set on playing the lead in Stolen Waters, a remake of a film in which her late mother, also an actress, once starred.  Meanwhile, Benjie is busy shooting Bad Babysitter 2, a mind-numbing gross-out comedy.  Cronenberg and Wagner’s point is clear: sequels and remakes have come to rule the day in Hollywood, and the industry’s obsession with youth has become blatantly pedophilic.  (In the opinion of two teen starlets, any woman in Hollywood over the age of twenty-five is as good as “menopausal.”)      

While all of this is entertaining enough, more interesting is Cronenberg and Wagner’s observation that Hollywood, like its stars, suffers from an acute case of repetition compulsion.  Behind all of the remakes and the sequels lies a desire to relive some lost past or restage some prior trauma.  Ghosts haunt Havana and Benjie, whose careers are Oedipal dramas of overbearing parents and abused children.  This is a Hollywood that’s one part kooky, two parts spooky.  For every joke about yoga and health food there are two references to incest and death.  Drownings and fires occur with alarming frequency.  Characters repeat lines from a Paul Eluard poem as if in the hopes of warding off evil spirits—or perhaps to invoke them.  The film's psychotronic finale is catalyzed by Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly harmless eccentric fresh off the bus from Florida who ends up entering into unholy unions with both Havana and Benjie.  

Julianne Moore’s performance as Havana is another one that we can add to the list of those for which she should have won an Oscar instead of for Still Alice.  (It did win her the Best Actress award at Cannes last year.)  She’s a major source of the film’s comedy as well as its horror.  Like Bette Davis’s Baby Jane, Havana is a movie star trapped in a state of perpetual childhood.  She whines and pouts and talks like a little girl, as if by doing so she’ll be able to turn back her own biological clock.  She’s the monster at the heart of the Hollywood labyrinth.  But for Cronenberg and Wagner, Hollywood is a labyrinth of many hearts and many monsters.

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