Map to the Stars (2014)
Words by Hiba Akmal
Map to the Stars (2014)
Fame, incest, and a desperate desire to hold on to your fading youth feature prominently in this dark satire. Our Screen Queen, Julianne Moore plays Havana Segrand, the fading b-list Hollywood narcissist who cannot accept that her time in the limelight expired long ago. Havana’s demise runs parallel to the derangement of the Hollywood child star Benji Weiss.
I remember one of the most unsettling texts I was ever tasked to review for my English undergrad. A modernist lament of modern-day moral depravity by Nathaniel West. The text of his assigned to me was ‘Miss Lonely Hearts’, a novella that cut through me in sixty short but heavy pages, painting a picture of a perverse and lonely world. West had whittled the art of dead-pan to a razor extreme, invoking the most disturbing of subject matter with the most apathetic of deliveries. I, the reader, was left to feel a strange and heady mix of attack and isolation. Now, upon learning that Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars makes sustained reference to West’s picture of modernity, I was both unsurprised and I’ll admit, a little unenthused to subject myself to it again, this time in live-action.
Set in L.A, Maps to the Stars is essentially the cinematic embodiment of West’s dystopian nightmare. And who plays the vile centerpiece reigning over this cesspit of narcissism? None other than the ethereal Julianne Moore. Yes, Marchi-grrrls, Julianne Moore - whom I have personally been besotted with since the first time my eyes caught sight of her iconic auburn hair in 1999’s Magnolia - is today’s dear screen queen.
Moore plays Havana Segrand, a fading b-list actress trying desperately to extend her time in the limelight. The storyline revolves around her pursuit to secure the role that etched her far more famous mother into the Hollywood gallery of the greats. As Havana, Moore trades in her signature red locks for a Hollywood blonde, sports bleeding raccoon eyes, and wears a permanent expression of paranoia. Her character couldn’t be further from the regal kind of grace she naturally exudes. Havana is a repelling mixture of whiny and childlike, followed by cruel and manipulative. So it’s all the more impressive that Moore’s performance here won her the best actress award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for the Golden Globe Awards.
Havana’s trajectory runs parallel to Benji Weiss - an archetypal Hollywood child star with the unnerving countenance of the entitled Hollywood male a-hole. Contrary to his pre-pubescent visage, there is not a shred of innocence left to Benji who, at 13-years old is already a recovering drug addict and has just re-entered society after an extended stint in rehab.
True to West’s committed nihilism, Benji does not recover and reform himself through the gracious support of his agents and family. They do not manage the fragility of his young age with responsibility and compassion. No, Benji is the walking cash cow that needs to be milked to capacity before his profitable youth has peaked.
On set, provoked by some kind of psychosis that haunts all of the central characters, Benji strangles his even younger child co-star. The boy survives, but later, at a friend’s house, relapsed on unspecified hard-drugs, he fatally shoots their family dog.
This gory, body-horror aspect of the film slowly creeps in and works its way to a final crescendo. Benji’s schizophrenic sister Agatha returns from her exile in Florida and is hired as Havana's s̶l̶a̶v̶e̶ personal assistant. Think Devil Wears Prada, but with a larger dose of devil and not a shred of self-respect. In L.A she befriends Jerome (Rob Pattinson) a dashing limo driver who chaufferes the elites, and the two begin a romance. OF course, Havana cannot allow this desirable young male to bypass her for an insignificant personal assistant. Never mind the fact that it’s hers.
When she realizes the coveted role is slipping from her grasp, her predatory sights are set on Jerome, in spite of Agatha revealing her feelings for him, in what appeared to be a moment of tender confidential exchange. Once she’s hailed his limo, Havana seduces him on the drive home and the two commit the deed with carnal thrusts and grunts from the backseat. Agatha, peering through the drawn-back curtain window that overlooks the driveway, is witness to the whole thing.
Although much of the delivery thus far is muted and dulled, Cronenberg is by no means a pacifist. Rather, I’m sure he’s been prepping us all along through this numbing depiction of a soulless, hopeless humanity. This way, when the final blow is dealt, he can relish the full impact of an unsuspecting audience. And this is exactly what happens when Agatha takes from Havana’s mantelpiece the very Oscar’s trophy that pathetically sums up her raison d'etre and uses it to smash her brain to pieces.
Much like her brother, Agatha the exiled schizophrenic, child of an incestuous marriage, cannot be granted innocence or a chance at recovery. We know from the start that her illness is directly tied to her banishment: we see her handling a concoction of pills, perhaps with the dream of fixing herself so that she can be a version of the ‘normality’ that she sees in the people around her. Agatha’s efforts are sabotaged when the one adult who appeared to acknowledge her, turns around and screws her boyfriend. So she falters and exacts a gory and bloody punishment on Havana.
Each blow of the coveted trophy sends flecks of blood and brains to her face. The muted soundscape of the film up until now erupts into graphic thuds and shrieks of pain as Agatha hacks away. With each strike, a fresh streak of blood splatters her face. The attack attains a rhythmic flow. Thud, shriek, hack. Thud, blood, hack. Thud, shriek, hack.
With Havana dead, the film turns back to the original perversion: incest. Incest which begot these two doomed children and incest which shall now release them from its wicked hold. Agatha and Benji arrange to meet at some kind of abandoned graveyard and what ensues is a form of ritualized sexual-love bond with hints of Romeo and Juliet. The two chant an incantation to seal their marriage. Yes, reader. Once wed, they consummate this vow with a fatal potion of pills and lie back to look up at the stars, departing peacefully from this twisted existence.