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TIFF 2014: ‘Maps to the Stars’ never quite comes together

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Maps to the Stars
Written by Bruce Wagner
Directed by David Cronenberg
Canada/USA/Germany/France, 2014

Hollywood could easily be the perfect fantasy world of Cronenberg’s obsessions. The themes associated with body horror, from the fascination with decay to the battle between body and mind, are staples of the torrid extremes of Tinsel Town. In 2012, David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, tackled these ideas with his feature debut Antiviral. That film explores a dystopian future in which the obsession with celebrity is taken to extremes of consumption. In Antiviral, the masses purchase meat grown from their favourite celebrity’s cells and head to a special clinic in order to be infected with the same venereal strain as their Hollywood Idol. The film externalizes the growing cultural obsession with fame, and concentrates that obsession through corporeality and sex.

Maps to the Stars vaguely taps into the idea of Hollywood as the new mythological centre of morality and value. In a world where religion and spirituality has been supplemented by the silver screen, Hollywood has come to inform the way we behave, think and feel. Storytelling has always been central to how we learn about pervading practices and cultural norms; from the epic poetry of the classical era to the scriptures of the major monotheistic religions, we have been guided by stories. In the past hundred years, cinema and Hollywood in particular has overtaken these texts to become the foundation of how we live our lives. Yet, what exists beyond the final cinematic products is a billion dollar industry.

Cronenberg connects this factory of dreams to the mythological basis through the myth of Oedipus and Electra (texts that are also crucial to psychoanalysis). These myths are presented rather overtly and set off our characters along a path of self-destruction and moral corruption. Both suggest a crucial failure and corruption of the family unit, reflecting a poisonous core that will poison the society from the inside. In both of these examples, it is only through self-emulation that the kingdom is able to thrive again.

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Unfortunately, while obviously alluding to these stories, much of the film’s narrative comes across as muddled. Piecing together subtextual meaning cohesively is almost impossible, with the thematic threads never quite coming together. Furthermore, the film lacks a strong visual style, and ideas are only vaguely supported visually.

The strongest storyline is that of Havana Segrand, played by Julianne Moore. Segrand is an aging actress pushing for the part that made her mother a cult star. The film takes her Electra impulses to extremes, portraying her mother as both goddess and villain; she was a far bigger star than Moore ever was, but she was also sexually and physically abusing her daughter. We understand the complete lack of balance of this character, who perpetually vies for attention while also constantly trying to overcome her personal trauma. One of the film’s more subtle moments evokes the lesbian connotations associated with the Electra myth, when Havana finds herself in an uncomfortable three-way with her boyfriend and a younger country singer. The sequence drifts in and out of fantasies, as Havana’s mother appears as a spectre, but perhaps more crucially we feel Havana’s discomfort with the unfolding scene. The sex of these scenes lack eroticism and suggest the deep alienation that Havana is experiencing. She is barely even a participant, as if her body and presence in this threesome as just an afterthought.

On the peripheries of the narrative we have the cultish environment of scientology and The Secret (or rather ,”No Secrets”, the cinematic version). It reflects our understanding of the Hollywood system from the outside and the film is unafraid to poke a little fun at the more extreme habits that the ‘stars’ go through to guarantee their happiness and success. Working through the mythological ups and downs of narrative filmmaking, these institutions seem to have power, perceived or otherwise. The cultish aspect figures importantly in one of the film’s major plot developments, yet is downplayed to the point of non-existence. This is just one instance of the film teasing at greater structural corruptions but never paying it off.

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The problem with Maps to the Stars is its lack of commitment to any strong themes or ideas. It seems to wander, occasionally hitting on moments that are bizarre or hilarious enough to make the film worth watching. The film feels more like a stroll through the environment than a thorough exploration, as the focus is not concentrated enough and the themes ultimately lack charge. The strength of the performances raises the film up to levels of passionate extremism that evoke the monsters of Cronenberg’s past, with Julianne Moore giving one of the best performances of the year. Her turn is hysterical in the best sense of the word, evoking a less ethereal Isabelle Adjani from Possession. Her performance brings her almost constantly to the point of tears, with her physical movements suggesting a mocked childlike nature.

While featuring some crucial moments and strong performances, Maps to the Stars never quite comes together. The film will surely be of interest to Cronenberg’s fans, particularly if you have enjoyed his most recent, less genre-centric efforts. It is important to note that one of the reasons why the filmmaker is one of the most dynamic working directors is his willingness to take risks. His work consistently pushes boundaries in terms of acceptability, his risks often yielding incredible rewards. While this film is far from his best work, it is emblematic of a filmmaker who is not satisfied with playing it safe.

— Justine Smith

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