Maps to the Stars is David Cronenberg’s First Horror Film in Years

By  · Published on March 3rd, 2015

Focus World

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Maps to the Stars

Over the past decade or so (since Spider, at least), David Cronenberg’s defining cinematic concerns with the mutability of human flesh has given way to explorations of more cerebral transformations. Videodrome’s James Woods-hosted chest vagina transformed into Viggo Mortsensen’s portrayals of two-faced violent men in A History of Violence and Easter Promises. Scanner’s exploding heads and The Fly’s Goldblum/insect hybrid were eventually replaced with Carl Jung’s explorations of the id and Don DeLillo’s ruminations on capital in the 21st century. While Cronenberg’s career arc marks a fascinating evolution of one of our most continually rewarding filmmakers – the journey of a filmmaker not content to reside within the bubble of expectations that engenders “auteur” status – it seemed uncertain whether the director would make another straightforward horror film – or, at least, as straightforward as a horror film can be in the allegory-heavy “venereal” variety that he pretty much invented.

Along comes Maps to the Stars, a film that hides a gothic horror story within what seems a scabrous satire of Hollywood. The film’s themes surrounding incest, mental illness, and the most toxic forms of petulant, Tinseltown-enabled jealousy form for Cronenberg (from a script by longtime Hollywood resident and novelist/screenwriter Bruce Wagner) a Greek tragedy set in the studio system.

Incest, Cronenberg claims in a sort-of interview with Huffington Post, was Wagner’s means of depicting Hollywood’s ultimately self-destructive practice of repetition:

“It’s maybe a reflection of the greater kind of incestuousness of Hollywood in which people know each other, interact with each other, steal from each other, imitate each other; kind of an incestuousness which is not in fact healthy just as genetically we know incest is not healthy. Perhaps that is one of Bruce’s comments on the insularity of Hollywood, how it needs fresh blood and it doesn’t get enough, so you end up with movies that are boring or familiar or remakes.”

The theme of incestuousness plays out across both tiers of the film’s dual storylines. One follows Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging and fading star vying for relevance as she lobbies for a role in a remake of a film that defined her now-dead mother’s (Sarah Gadon) career. Havanna’s mother visits her as a specter – not only as a reminder of her father’s sexual abuse, but also by staging new physical abuses of her own by showing up as a hallucination while fondling Havanna during a three-way or commenting upon and emphasizing the star’s greatest insecurities in her own appearance.

The other storyline follows Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), an enigmatic young woman who maneuvers to climb the ranks of Hollywood by first becoming Havanna’s assistant. But, as the film deliberately unravels, Agatha’s true motive is to connect with her estranged family: her teenage superstar brother Benjie (Evan Bird), her new age psychotherapy practicing father Stafford (John Cusack), and her barely-holding-it-together starmom Christina (Olivia Williams). As the film progresses, it’s revealed that the psychologically unstable Agatha was abandoned by her family after setting fire to their home while performing a marriage ritual with her brother after learning that her parents had initially coupled without realizing they were brother and sister.

Beyond the film’s emphasis on incest as a central plot device, the Los Angeles depicted in Maps to the Stars is a surprisingly small, quiet city wherein everybody has some affiliation to one another. Not unlike Paul Schrader’s similarly eerie portrayal of a muted, hermetically sealed modern City of Angels, Wagner and Cronenberg’s bubble of Hollywood does little to make the excesses of fame and fortune seem even remotely alluring – clubs and parties are filled with awkward, time-filling conversation, and exchanges of social capital through sexual favors have rarely been so perfunctory.

None of this should be surprising as an extension of the oft-alienating relationship Cronenberg affixes between his audiences and his characters. The director’s camera is sober while his characters rarely are. But this staleness also betrays what Cronenberg and Wagner are most interested in – not the indulgent parties of spoiled living that we’ve seen in many a Bret Easton Ellis novel, but the endless quiet hours spent at home, a place where one’s personal demons and haunting insecurities are given space to thrive.

And it is in this way that Maps to the Stars more directly resembles a Tinseltown-set update of gothic horror than a Greek tragedy-invoking takedown of Hollywood: the film concerns itself less with the condemnable, narcissistic excesses of Hollywood living and more with the inability of Hollywood’s glisten to quiet the specter of the past.

At the center of Maps to the Stars are three homes, all of which are haunted by ghosts and memories. The first, Havanna’s, is continually revisited by the spectral spirit of her mother, a constant reminder of an image that Havanna will imitate but never be able to see herself as equivalent to, and a manifestation of Havanna’s memories of abuse and the fiery death that befell her parent.

The second home is that of the Weiss’s, a family that has repressed the memory of Agatha’s crime as well as its impetus to the extent that they’ve willfully forgotten that their daughter exists in the name of preserving a lucrative family business embodied in their child star son. This house eventually becomes overburdened by the return of their family’s suppressed history – from the parents’ “original” incest to Agatha’s ceremony with her brother – but Agatha’s arrival comes less as a shocking return of the past and more as a belated but inevitable harbinger of the family’s demise. Meanwhile, Benjie himself is haunted by ghosts – two children, one a recent victim of terminal illness that he visited in the hospital as self-promoting charity, the other the son of an actress who competed for the same part as Havanna – thereby perpetuating the cycle of tragedy and self-delusion that structured his current predicament.

Finally, the third and most important home is the Weiss’s former residence that Agatha burned to the ground, now an empty plot located (improbably) under the Hollywood sign that the Weiss family still owns but has long abandoned. It’s the first place Agatha visits upon her arrival, the spot where she later has sex with her driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson), and the locale where she finishes her ceremony with her brother – a tragic but conclusive end to a family unit condemned from the beginning.

In Maps to the Stars, the world of Hollywood wheeling and dealing is structured through repeated assertions of self-importance, a self-made world whose stakes are never really defined but sharply experienced by each slight. It is a factory of status and fantasy made by the powerful in a fashion designed to most benefit the powerful. It’s strange, then, that a Hollywood satire has never quite before been envisioned through the devices of the gothic as it is here, incorporating into Beverly Hills McMansions certain narrative elements typically reserved for claustrophobic country estates weighed down by the burdens of long-suppressed histories that can lash out in any moment. In making a gothic horror film out of a Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars turns Los Angeles inside out, revealing an incestuous cabal located within its maze of exclusive, interconnected corridors mapped so that they all lead back to the spot where they began.