Making movies about the movies has a funny way of turning the camera back on a director’s personality: though they may seem like in-jokes, these films often count among their makers’ most personal projects, essentially inviting us into their own backyards. For the humanist Truffaut, in Day for Night, filmmaking was a means of bringing people closer together; for wry old Robert Altman in The Player, it was nothing to be taken too seriously; Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. staked out the metaphysics of La-La Land, and found it both dreamy and nightmarish.
With Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg returns to Hollywood almost two decades after The Fly, only to find a horrifying vacuum he approaches with typical scientific rigour. Throughout, you catch Cronenberg deploying his camera like an electron microscope, constantly refocusing on lost souls possibly too shrivelled to register in conventional shot. The approach yields a heightened sense of the uncanny space of Los Angeles, its empty houses filling up with ghosts and other creeps, while confirming that movies, and the neuroses that enable them, are subjects that still merit close, serious, clinical study.
Bruce Wagner’s gossipy, Bret Easton Ellis-y script presents us with a number of archetypes, played by outsider-actors who presumably never have to worry about not working in this town again: an egomaniacal leading lady (New York-based Julianne Moore), her quackish therapist (John Cusack, representing Chicago), a scarred ingenue (the Australian Mia Wasikowska), and a jack-of-all-trades limo driver (our own Robert Pattinson) busy working on his script when he’s not ferrying everybody else around.
The movement may be circular, but what Wagner and Cronenberg are really interested in here – as a Carrie Fisher cameo and a joke about Emma Watson playing a teen mom in a film called Bad Babysitter 2 hint at – is lineage. (Cronenberg’s son Brandon made his directorial debut with 2012’s familiarly chilly Antiviral; maybe it got dad thinking.) At the film’s centre are a pair of mutated family units to rival anything in, say, The Brood: deviant dynasties spawning monsters apt to turn on one another.
Once that’s clear, every scene explains why these homes appear so empty: they’re owned by control freaks possessed of a self-absorption so vast it pushes out everything but the most minimalist furnishing. Their offspring therefore have to work that much harder to catch mommy and daddy’s attention; those that aren’t already waving for the cameras are drowning – in booze, swimming pools, or any of L.A.’s other snakepits. Filmmaking is here a distraction or compulsion, a way of filling the void left by the absence of parental love.
Many of those making movies-about-movies have been seduced by the industry’s surface glamour, doubtless hoping some of it will rub off on them, but Cronenberg offers a sternly Canadian resistance: his gaze never softens towards his coldly indifferent or otherwise screwed-up characters, and his droll editing rhythms are those of an analyst nodding sagely while noting the demons scuttling out of the shadows, the skeletons rattling inside every walk-in closet.
The mystery of how these lives intersect nevertheless intrigues us, and the excellent ensemble find the right notes between repellent and monstrously watchable. They’ve evidently brushed up against outsized egos while maintaining enough distance to spot how they function; in everything from her victimmy trout-pout to the passive-aggressive cadences of her conversation, Moore’s performance is a great, sustained piece of observation, and payback for all those mornings when she was kept waiting on set by far starrier performers.
Anyone expecting hoorays for Hollywood should look elsewhere, and I suspect its outsider status rules Maps to the Stars out of Oscar consideration: its diagnosis of a profound site-specific sickness may well land a little too close to home for comfort. Yet the perversity captured here compels in a way it hasn’t in a Cronenberg film for some time: few filmmakers have more comprehensively dissected the dark hearts behind the bright lights.
(MovieMail, September 2014)
Maps to the Stars screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.