You can say what you want about Maps to the Stars, as long you don’t mention the word ‘satire’. At least not in the presence of director David Cronenberg or his screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who spent most of their time in Cannes denying the fact that the narrative could be seen as such. A pitch-black family drama of sorts, yes. Cronenberg’s very own Divine Comedy, maybe. A haunting, terrifying version of life in LA, if you like. But a ‘Tinseltown satire’, NO. ‘It is not a satire of Hollywood,’ Cronenberg stresses in more than one interview, ‘it’s reality.’ And Wagner adds: ‘I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it.’
If so, then the truth is that Wagner has seen a lot – by anyone’s standards. Julianne Moore plays Havana, a fading yet feisty ageing actress, who is desperate to make her big comeback but instead is increasingly haunted by the ghost of her mother, a celebrated child actress who became a classic Hollywood star. To her good fortune, Havana is inclined to think, she meets Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), whom she employs as her new PA. Branded with burn scars on her hands and arms, Agatha, however, has her very own agenda. The daughter of a smug self-help guru (John Cusack) and demanding mother (Olivia Williams), who managed her kids’ careers but otherwise cared little for their well-being, Agatha left home for rehab after causing a fire that put her and her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird) – a child star ruined by fame – in life-threatening danger. Now back in the hood, Agatha lives out her inner demons and romantic fantasies in a weird imaginary game with limousine chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who, in turn, is seduced by Havana. Unsurprisingly, things get pretty messy from here on.
In his career, spanning almost 40 years since his 1975 debut featureShivers, Cronenberg has never before shot an entire film in LA and, quite aptly, finally arrives only to expose it to the bone before burning it all down to ashes. What’s more, Maps to the Stars exploits its blatantly Lynch-inspired plot of switching reality for fantasy, yourself for someone else, and losing all sense of truth to a point where delusion (and in Havana’s case, hysteria) thrives, terror rules, and nothing is sacred.
In both counts, the film sees Cronenberg at his weirdest, wittiest and most horrifying in years, crafting a highly charged, cynical nightmare about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, with the suitable feel of a mystery ghost story. And yet, as fitting, seductive and gruesome as it is, Maps to the Stars somewhat feels at odds with the director’s insistence that the film is anything but a satirical apocalypse. But luckily, as in real life, the truth lies in the details and it is the ambiguity that makes the experience worthwhile.
Watch the trailer: