Divisive Canadian director David Cronenberg first engrossed, shocked and compelled audiences in the 1960s, with his debut feature Stereo. Now, five decades later, he’s still creating innovative, satirical pieces that will appease the pre-established cult following he has, whilst bringing in new arrivals with every passing feature. His latest, Maps to the Stars, is a barbed look at the dark and deranged aspects to Hollywood life.
This ensemble piece follows a plethora of celebrities, some of which are immensely famous and struggle to cope with the constant attention, such as the Weiss family, with the controlling Stafford (John Cusack) trying to forge what he believes to be the best path for his child superstar, Benjie (Evan Bird). However, in spite of the deep-rooted troubles that derive from this lifestyle, actress Havan Segrand (Julianne Moore) desperately seeks more time in the limelight, while her new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) and driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson) spend their days with the stars, in the vein hope they may too adopt this seemingly luxurious, yet immensely shallow way of living.
Cronenberg gets deep into the darkest aspect of Hollywood life, exploring how fame can change people; how it can screw with younger actor’s minds. He studies the notion of rejection, and how a career based so primarily on image can lead to nervous breakdowns for the more volatile, weak performers, where vanity can be dangerously detrimental, and the lust for fame even more so. Though of course offering a heightened take on reality for dramatic effect, Cronenberg still has his finger on the pulse, as this satire is not too absurd, and can be inexplicably connected to various celebrities in this day and age who themselves have been through emotional trauma at the hands of their success. You only need to spend five minutes in Hollywood to get a feel for the culture to know that Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner are by no means far away from real life with this collaboration. Meanwhile, the star of the show is Moore – turning in a performance that could well earn her an Oscar nomination, as she plays the damaged, older actress role with a tremendous – and at times – breathtaking conviction.
In the past Cronenberg could be accused of being shocking for the mere sake of it, with features such as Videodrome being overly concerned with their graphic execution, that they lost sight of the message conveyed – but not Maps to the Stars. This picture offers a different type of shock, and one which is far more powerful and uncomfortable. It’s one thing for extreme images to provoke a response from the viewer, but in this, such extremity derives from emotion, and scenes such as the one featuring Olivia Williams in the bath, crying. It’s more subtle, more engaging and certainly more effective.