An Angel of Death: Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg’s new film, Maps to the Stars (2014), features an ensemble cast with the likes of Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Carrie Fisher, Evan Bird, Robert Pattinson, and John Cusack among many others. Maps to the Stars premiered at the 2014 Cannes film festival (Julianne Moore was awarded the Best Actress award) and enjoyed a limited theatrical run in France and Italy during the month of May before touring the festival circuit around the world. Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner (screenwriter and novelist) began production for Maps to the Stars six years ago. Wagner produced a script but the financing fell through so production was put on hold. In the interim, Wagner wrote a novel based off of the script which was called “Dead Stars”. The stars aligned after Cosmopolis (2012) and Maps to the Stars was back on track. Cronenberg shot for five days in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills (the first time Cronenberg shot in the U.S.) and then shot for 24 days in Toronto.
Cronenberg was attracted to the script because it had an acerbic vision of Hollywood. Comparing Maps to the Stars to previous Hollywood satire pictures, this film is a bit closer, in tone and ideology, to Sunset Boulevard (1950) than to Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). Maps to the Stars focuses on two working actors in Hollywood. Havana Segrand (played by Moore) is an over-the-hill, C-list actress, desperately trying to rise above her status; and Benjie Weiss (Bird), son of Stafford (Cusack) and Christina (Williams) — brother and sister, just left rehab at the age of 13 after a crippling drug-addiction he developed because when he was nine years he was getting paid $300,000 a week.
Havana and Benjie’s lives do not intersect (even though they share the same talent agent) until Agatha Weiss (Wasikowska) returns to L.A. to work with Carrie Fisher (in an excellent cameo with Fisher playing herself) on a script about burn victims. Agatha has scars on her hands, torso, and face, a visible reminder of the fire she started many years ago. The audience quickly discovers that Agatha is Benjie’s sister and when Stafford learns that Agatha is in L.A., the Weiss family prime themselves for her troubling return.
Havana’s mother, Clarice Taggart (Gadon), is a spectral presence that haunts the entire film. Characters watch scenes from Havana’s mother’s critically acclaimed film. The film-within-the-film has a spectral quality about it, not simply because Havana is seeing hallucinations of her mother, but also because Agatha recites lines from the film. And there are other scenes where the characters from the film-within-the-film deliver dialogue that Agatha spoke to other characters, notably her love interest, Jerome (Pattinson). One line in particular is repeated several times: “on the stairs of death I write your name, Liberty”. According to Agatha, these lines help her dispel her own hallucinations and she advises Benjie to recite them when he sees his dead people. Havana and Benjie are suffering from psychologically disturbing hallucinations involving the dead. Havana is visited by her dead mother, Clarice Taggart, and Benjie by a sick girl he met in the hospital that died before Benjie could give her an iPod Mini.
Early in the film we discover that Clarice’s film is being remade and that Havana had auditioned for the role her mother played. Initially, the director chose another actress but had to eventually cast Havana because the actress’s son drowned in her pool and she was too consumed with grief to play the role. This boy returns but not to Havana; Benjie sees this dead boy in his pool along with the cancer patient shortly afterwards, again connecting Havana’s story with Benjie’s.
The structure of Maps to the Stars is that of a revenge-thriller in which a lone-figure returns to a community and rights the wrongs done to them. Agatha is this lone-figure, the protagonist of the film, despite Moore’s award-winning performance as Havana. Unlike the lone-figures of revenge films Agatha is not on a quest for revenge, at least the audience is not lead to believe this is her motive for returning. One scene troubles this interpretation: Agatha performing a weird dance in her hotel room while Stafford blabs about his goofy psycho-physical therapy program on the TV.
The most puzzling scene in the film. Why is Agatha dancing with her father in the background? Is her return to L.A. a revenge quest? It certainly is but it is never articulated as such to the audience.
The events that unfold have a casual-coincidental nature to them that the continual surprising turn of events in the film appear to be haphazard reactions to provocations. The ending in particular has this coincidental-knee-jerk-reaction feeling with entirely no foreshadowing from the first act of the film. What makes things even more confusing for any interpretation of the film is that Agatha is the cause of the problem, the initial wrong that she has come back to right. She started the fire that tore her away from the Weiss household. Her parents reacted by institutionalizing her until she was 18. Her mother, Christina apologizes to her in the third act and is more receptive to Agatha’s presence while Stafford is persistently hostile towards her because he has either not forgiven her for starting the fire or because he still thinks she is insane or because he fears she might ruin his career/Benjie’s career (“Now the world will we know we have done wrong” says Stafford). What wrong is he referring to? Institutionalizing his daughter? Marrying his sister? In the latter part of the second act, Stafford tries to persuade Agatha to leave L.A. with money but she refuses the offer. Agatha’s return symbolizes an eternal return of sorts. Her first attempt to unite with her brother was thwarted and she has returned to finish the ceremony.
While Havana’s star is on the rise, Benjie’s is plummeting. Jealous of his co-star in “Bad Babysitter 2″, Benjie berates the child actor in the washroom and then slips into a hallucination. While in fantasy-land Benjie mistakenly chokes the young child. He is fired from the production while the child is hospitalized. The Weiss family falls apart shortly after in a somewhat abrupt manner. When Stafford returns home he finds his wife on fire in the backyard. He tries to save her but she dies. Benjie returns home to find his father laying lifeless in a patio chair and takes his ring. He meets up with Agatha and they lay down together staring up at the stars in the night sky. They take some pills and slip their parents’ rings on and elope without any witnesses. Agatha and Benjie repeat the incestual relationship of their parents.
Violence in Maps to the Stars erupts from nowhere. Two scenes with violence. The first. Havana, shortly after having car-coitus with Jerome, finds Agatha in her home and begins to verbally assault her for getting period blood on her twelve thousand dollar couch. The insults continue until Agatha grabs one of Havana’s shiny-gold awards (the prop used is a Genie award–Cronenberg has received five in his career) and bludgeons her to death with it. The second. Agatha visits her mother and they have a reconciliation of sorts. Stafford interrupts and beats his daughter, calling her a “crazy cunt.”
In both scenes violence happens because dialogue has broken down. In action-revenge-thrillers, the protagonist resorts to violence because that is the only way they can express themselves. In this film, that trope is revised to fit the semantic elements Cronenberg/Wagner are using with this particular narrative structure. Violence erupts when communication breaks down, a communication that is itself full of aggression; in Maps to the Stars violence is then an extension of this aggressive language (there are more violent scenes in the film, when Benjie chokes his co-star while hallucinating (mentioned above), or when Christina sets herself on fire by the pool or when Benjie shoots his friend’s dog).
Maps to the Stars is then on closer inspection not really about Hollywood celebrity culture but about a ghosts, the past, and the eternal return. What is Agatha but an Angel of Death? Charles Bronson with burns and kinky-leather gloves. Agatha repeats the incestual ceremony of her parents. Benjie and his sister/wife look up to the stars as they overdose.