David Cronenberg’s films are always concerned with the flesh; about technology and our mind’s inability to understand it. It’s most obvious in films like Videodrome and The Fly, where physical degradation is a blunt and gory affair, unavoidable and inevitable. Some will chart Cronenberg’s recent slew of films as going against the grain of his early 80s work - after all, a character in Cronenberg’s film is now more likely to pull a gun from his hip holster than from within an orifice in his abdomen. Yet Cronenberg remains steadfast with his fleshy concerns and with Maps to the Stars, the auteur aims his sight on the pale white troubles of Hollywood types, where his character’s artificiality contributes to a different, but no less compelling, exercise in the macabre.
The film opens with Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) on a Greyhound bus to Hollywood. Wearing elbow-length black gloves to conceal her burn marks, she is not the prototypical Hollywood type - her ragged hair and singed neck only highlight how strange she is in the context of the city’s opulent and vain community. And that’s where Cronenberg shifts focus, where he introduces the wealthy and self-absorbed Havana (Julianne Moore). She is the prototypical diva, motivated to look younger than her age suggests, and not especially averse to threesomes to get her way. On the other side of the celebrity spectrum is Benjie (Evan Bird), a unique television hybrid of the Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf variety who stars in a sitcom. Barely a teenager, the kid already has a stint in rehab under his belt. Agatha, Havana, and Benjie’s narratives all converge in the usual Cronbergian way; that is to say they converge in the most strangely incestuous way.
Maps is a peculiar film, even by Cronenberg standards. His work has never had grand universal appeal, though it’s in Maps where the director’s sensibilities feel especially foreign. He is, after all, a Canadian and Maps as a final product doesn’t feel all too dissimilar to something like Paris, Texas or Strozek. Like those German productions that study American concerns, Maps is an exercise that highlights peculiarities in our culture that often function covertly. There’s both a disenchantment and mysticism to how Cronenberg addresses Bruce Wagner’s screenplay, modulating his tone from something bizarrely trashy to confoundingly cosmic. That’s in part the appeal of the film, where there’s a staggering sense of disunity between text and imagery. Wasikowska, for example, is utilized not for her typical starlet qualities but rather a burn victim subservient to Moore’s dum-dum diva. Or consider Evan Bird’s tiny frame in association with his deviant behavior - the film perpetually underscores the disharmony between body and action.
Yet these are pieces of text that ultimately work to reinforce Cronenberg’s primary concern of the flesh. In this toxic Hollywood environment, everyone seems to be at odds within their own skin. From Havana’s attempts to secure a role that she’s much too old for to Benjie reconciling his incestuous origin, Cronenberg contemplates a society’s constant need to change the flesh, despite the success that comes from it. This treatment of flesh as a commodity is an interesting one for Cronenberg, and something that Steven Soderbergh explores at greater detail throughout his filmography (most notably in The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike). But Wagner’s scripting is less overt about the matter, embracing broader themes of Hollywood glitz and the great beyond. This ambitious attempt at addressing so much perhaps prohibits the film from ever really delving too deep. It scratches a surface but doesn’t quite take the deep plunge like Cronenberg’s recent outings. It’s humorous to think that a film that tackles the cosmos and incest as comparably light to his previous works, but this is Cronenberg’s oeuvre we’re talking about.
Still, Cronenberg is clearly a master, possessing an effortless efficiency in framing and clinical compositions. Ronald Sanders, who has edited most of Cronenberg’s filmography, does a particularly notable job, in what may as well be the director’s most economic film to date. That might not sound like a shining endorsement, but Maps could’ve been an extremely convoluted film with its three-prong narrative and wealth of side characters getting lost in a Californian smog. Instead, Sanders and Cronenberg approach the material with a directness that’s needed for such tricky material. Like its title suggests, Maps to the Stars can be embraced and interpreted for its sleeze or cosmic-inclinations, yet it should be accepted as another singularly bizarre work from a genuine auteur.