DIRTY PRETTY THINGS
by Glenn Heath JR.
David Cronenbergs Maps to the Stars
“… On all the flesh that says yes
On the forehead of my friends
On every hand held out
I write your name …”
Elegiac passages from Paul Éluard’s Liberté haunt David Cronenberg’s nutty Maps to the Stars, as if the Surrealist writer’s transformative prose was another of the film’s many ghostly manifestations. In a film that deftly normalizes the toxic repetition of pop culture references and celebrity name-dropping, Éluard’s dreamy influence feels alien, like an extraterrestrial marking imprinted upon an earthly idol. Only Agatha, a mysterious burn victim who returns home to Los Angeles after spending her teenage years in a mental ward, understands the freeing nature of his poem; the tinsel town tyrants she encounters don’t speak the same language.
Herein lies a key disconnect between the world views of those outside Hollywood’s bubble and characters connected to its life-sucking process. Living separate from her media-obsessed family has allowed Agatha to experience both perspectives, which makes her the most dangerous character in the film. Look at one of the opening scenes where she both constructs an identity and subverts it while playfully interacting with a limousine driver and budding actor named Jerome. “Where did you come from?” he asks. “Jupiter,” she replies. Later, Agatha drops the theatrics and corrects herself, stating that she’s spent nearly the last decade in Florida, but the implication of her otherness has already been solidified. Although, some familiar with the Sunshine State might suggest the two places are one and the same.
Many critics have labeled Maps to the Stars a satire, but to do so diminishes the film’s genuine interest in the poisonous processes at work in both the film industry and the family. Cronenberg’s inquisitive camera slowly sleeks through rooms of modernist design and along streets like Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, observing with curiosity a species of devils in perpetual misery. Yet, as in A History of Violence, there’s a sense of unfamiliarity in the warped performances and blunt dialogue, as if an outsider produced the content. So, is the film a nightmarish creation of Agatha’s mind? Maps to the Stars certainly understands the power of otherworldly visions and ghosts, specifically in line with the horror genre; the last act contains not one but two desecrations of the female body. But the film’s closing ascent into the sky complicates this notion, using suicide as a means to a hopeful end for a fairy tale perverted from the first frame.
On that point, we must go back to the beginning. In many Cronenberg films the opening credits sequence set the rules of the game, and Maps to the Stars is no different. As Howard Shore’s drowsy score plays over the soundtrack, a mosaic of twirling constellations and road markings are superimposed over each other. Hypnotic in design and animation, the images appear like a crib mobile rocking an off-screen baby to sleep. These same markings appear at the end of the film too, immediately after Agatha and her estranged brother Benjie, a child star and recovering drug addict with a taste for Cobalt energy drink, take a lethal dosage of painkillers on the grounds of their former home. At multiple other points ghosts of dead children return to haunt the aging actress Havana Segrand, who like Agatha and Benjie is a product of adolescent trauma. Each phantasm speaks in the same kind of code as Éluard’s poem, suggesting that Maps to the Stars might be best described as a tormenting nursery rhyme constructed to save the innocents from a life of artificial adulthood. Except the only escape hatch is death.
Such finality often comes in the form of fire, water, and blood. Agatha’s arms were burned in a blaze she set many years before, the young child of an actress dies in a pool, and Benjie’s mother seems to spontaneously combust—poolside, no less—as if her body can no longer stand the guilt eating away at its insides. A similar irruption comes when Agatha pummels Havana with the blunt end of her lone acting award. Cronenberg cuts from the victim’s shocked face (her most honest expression in the film) to a point of view of the murderer, brain matter colliding with her skin after each blow.
These visceral images mesh with the calculated and serpentine dialogue, making Maps to the Stars another in a long line of Cronenberg oddities. Yet the film’s lack of connective tissue marks it as an especially weird product: scenes often jump from one to the next without establishing shots. It’s best to not think of them as scenes at all but different enclosures in one big open zoo of demented folly and happenstance. The static low angles and measured pacing are quietly disarming, calling attention to the plastic nature of this staged reality. It’s a type of faux-naturalism, like something produced by an Alien Sensory Ethnography Lab.
If Hollywood and all of its immoral ideologies have produced a warped place where “hell is a world without narcotics” and “everything is stunt casting” then Éluard’s poem provides a window into another version of things. Whether this is Jupiter, Florida, or heaven above never becomes clear, as Cronenberg leaves this ambiguity stewing in the film’s final act. At this point in Maps to the Stars, all of the cultural riddles and layered reference points fade away, leaving Agatha and Benjie exposed from the camouflage of their traumatic upbringing, ready for a next chapter separate from the So-Cal viper pit from which they were born.
As the final high-angle shot rises up to the constellations with spirits in tow, Maps to the Stars realigns a perspective that has been out of balance for so long. All of the children in Cronenberg’s film are given a level of morbid grace. Some are even allowed clear refuge from the incest that has infiltrated their youth. Éluard’s poem inspires this new way of thinking by challenging the Hollywood model of self-destructive art-making, returning the power of creation to the innocent outlier. Doing so ultimately snuffs out the stranglehold that ego has placed on familial living, providing Agatha and Benjie an opportunity to move beyond the ashes of their suffering and toward a new flesh.
ContributorGlenn Heath JR.
GLENN HEATH JR. is the film critic for the alternative weekly San Diego CityBeat and managing director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. He is also contributes to Slant Magazine, Fandor, Little White Lies, MUBI's Notebook, and The L Magazine.