Maps to the Stars (2014)

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David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is a troubling ghost story that isn’t really a ghost story. The 2014 picture features a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, plus all the usual Cronenberg suspects are present. Cinematography is by Peter Suschitzky, editing is by Ronald Sanders, music is by Howard Shore.

And Cronenberg reunites with Robert Pattinson, who starred in 2012’s Cosmopolis. Sarah Gadon, who featured in A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, may well be another muse for the director. A host of other stars fill the galaxy, too, and the web they weave is one of horrific comedy.

Mia Wasikowska is Agatha Weiss, a young woman who arrives in Hollywood. She has burns on her face and body. She’s on drugs. Evan Bird is Benjie Weiss, a teen star and Agatha’s brother. He’s on drugs. John Cusack is Dr. Stafford Weiss, a “therapist.” He might as well be on drugs. Olivia Williams is Cristina Weiss, stage mom to Benjie. She’s on whatever it takes.

There is also Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a former star living in the shadow of her fabled mother Clarice (Gadon). Clarice, like everyone else in Hollywood, croaked in a fire. She haunts her daughter. Pattinson is Jerome, an unassuming limo driver looking to write a screenplay. Everything and everyone is connected.

Ghosts are everywhere and some of them are living. Cronenberg’s picture is so dipped in tragedy that death has no meaning. Everyone has the pigment of something on their lives and everyone is working through warped self-delusion, a constant theme in the filmmaker’s work.

Maps to the Stars is the culmination of that theme. The self-delusion is strong through these dreadful cobwebs, where rotten human beings are convinced of their greatness by the environment they occupy. It represents the spleen of wealth and fame, where frivolity is its own reward and the prosperous can do no wrong.

Benjie is one of the more obvious examples of this self-delusion. Cronenberg and Wagner layer him with every trick of the trade and Bird embodies a horrifying human. He has too much money, too many “friends,” too few enemies. When one comrade attempts to keep him off drugs, a girl plies him with GHB anyway. When it’s over, the dog is dead.

Havana is weighed down by self-delusion. She is told she should become a manager. She wants to play her mother in a movie. She’s visited by a suggestive ghost version of her mother, at first in a bathtub. Her issues would have given Norman Bates a run for his money.

Initially, Agatha and Jerome seem like blameless strangers. But everyone’s working something. Or someone. And everyone wants to escape themselves, which is a sacrament of the self-delusion Cronenberg so affectionately assembles. As in Cosmopolis, the “love” side of the love-hate relationship wins.

Maps to the Stars is a dense work of penetrating satire and it takes several cold swipes at the world of Hollywood, but it also plunges deeper. It drops names and figures, exhuming what most already know about triviality and religion and sex and drugs and reorganizing it in the iron of self-worth, self-delusion and self-haunting.

Cronenberg’s pictures work because he understands the point of view of his subjects. He understands those who use the world as a supply of parts, those who borrow from Eastern mysticism and Western opulence in one snort. And his Maps of the Stars is a landscape of users, a burlesque of fire and swimming pools and self-delusion under the careless burn of the Hollywood sign.

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