Critiques of Hollywood often seem to work well when they are made by outsiders. David Cronenberg had never before made a film in the US, but even with Maps to the Stars he spent only 5 days shooting exteriors in LA and most of the film was actually shot in Toronto. Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer Todd McCarthy brands Cronenberg’s film a failure – or at best a weak and tired satire (Variety didn’t like it either). I’d have to disagree. But then I’ve never been to LA and my ideas about Tinseltown come only from the movies. Cronenberg and scriptwriter Bruce Wagner (a Hollywood insider whose novels draw on his own experiences in LA) seem to have seen all the movies I’ve seen and probably more.
‘Maps to the Stars’ refers to both the tourists maps of celebrity homes, the players in Greek tragedies and also the mystical bullshit emanating from Stafford Weiss (John Cusack on great form) as guru to celebs. He offers ‘massage therapy’ to the Norma Desmond character (Julianne Moore having enormous fun). Sunset Boulevard is just one of the obvious references. Mommie Dearest is quoted in one gag and Carrie Fisher appears in a cameo reminding us of Postcards From the Edge (1990) which she wrote and which starred Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter acting pair. The Julianne Moore character, Havana, here attempts to revive her career by pursuing the role taken by her own mother. Robert Pattinson plays the generic role of the outsider in the guise of the struggling wannabe actor who has to take jobs as a limo driver to pay his way and who inadvertently links together the players in this comic tragedy. The tragedy begins with the arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving at LAX from ‘Jupiter, Florida’ who wants to visit some very specific sites and needs a driver. It takes a while to suss out exactly who Agatha is with her burned skin covered by long gloves. By then we’ve already met the rest of the Weiss household with 13 year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a foul-mouthed Justin Bieber-type star and his controlling mother Cristina (Olivia Williams).
Cronenberg in his deadpan way has suggested that the film is a humane family tragedy. It is that – and an attack on the vacuous industry/society that enables/provokes the acts we see performed by the central characters. It isn’t really an exposé of contemporary Hollywood as such. As Tony Rayns points out in his Sight and Sound (October) review, Wagner’s experiences relate to Hollywood in the 1990s before the domination of superhero movies and animations. Instead, Cronenberg presents the family tragedy in such a way that it reminds us, sometimes obliquely, of earlier films about Hollywood. At times I got flashes of Lana Turner in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and also of Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) when Agatha quotes lines of romantic poetry (Bogart, a screenwriter has a desperate love for Gloria Grahame). Though not a Hollywood ‘industry’ story, I also thought of James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, when they ‘play house’ in the Hollywood hills. I was intrigued to see that Cronenberg in a press conference answered a question about the ghosts that appear to characters in the film with a reference to the ghost of James Dean haunting the world (“Il est vrai que le fantôme de James Dean hante encore le monde . . . “). Dean is also a link to the Cronenberg film that Maps to the Stars most resembles for me. Crash (1997) was one of Cronenberg’s most controversial – and certainly most misunderstood films. Given that Maps to the Stars involves many scenes of expensive cars gliding between expensive houses and expensive shops perhaps the resemblance is not surprising. I tried at one point to discern whether or not Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky were using the 25mm lens that became their trademark on earlier films. I’m not expert enough to tell, but there were scenes in which the ‘otherworldliness’ of the settings certainly came through the clinical images that director and cinematographer create.
Cronenberg’s Hollywood critics argue that he doesn’t get it and that Wagner’s script is out of date, but taken as a Ballardian speculative fiction with Hollywood memories haunting the tragic lives of its characters, I think Maps to the Stars works well. It’s amazing what you can do in Toronto with a few palm trees!
Few directors divide audiences quite like Abel Ferrara. I can remember having seen Ms 45 (US 1981) and Bad Lieutenant (US 1992). I think I might have seen at least one more. I wasn’t repulsed by these films as many critics have recorded. I was intrigued by this new film as I did follow the news story about Dominique Strauss-Kahn which provides the story details – although I didn’t follow every aspect of the coverage. That’s quite important because Ferrara provides no context or ‘back story’ to what we see and there were several references that I didn’t recognise until I researched the story after the screening.
The film opens with the usual disclaimers about being fictitious but ‘inspired by’ etc. What then follows is an interview with Gerard Depardieu, something like the pre-credits sequence of Godard’s Tout Va Bien, in which he says he doesn’t like politicians and that as an actor he doesn’t ‘feel’ for the characters he plays. All this is directed towards journalists – and at one point, I think, delivered straight to camera, something which happens again later in the film proper. This device leads to suggestions that Ferrara has created some kind of ‘meta text’ – a view supported by the inclusion at various points of video footage from the ‘real’ Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) news story. At another point later in the film the lawyer for the Depardieu character tells us that the whole trial in which his client is appearing is not happening in the ‘real world’ but, á la Baudrillard, is playing out as a media text/construction in which the real people involved are ‘playing’ roles. Add to this the very presence of Depardieu as a ‘tax exile’ and reviled superstar of French cinema, sometimes seen as prostituting his talent in unworthy projects, and we have a very interesting set of representations.
Depardieu plays ‘M. Devereaux’, a French banker of international standing who is passing through New York on his way back to Paris. He is introduced as the kind of man who employs young women to offer sexual favours to anyone who visits his office and who finds a sex party ready for him when he registers at his Manhattan hotel. We are then offered around twenty minutes of sexual activity in which the grossly overweight Depardieu satisfies himself with various call girls and then later assaults the woman from housekeeping who comes to clean his room – the crime for which DSK was arrested. There aren’t many ’18’ films around these days and the sex here seemed fairly explicit (much bearing of breasts and buttocks but no genitals) and it was only later that I realised it wasn’t anywhere near as explicit as Nymphomaniac. I’m not sure what I make of that observation. I’ve seen reviews that express disgust and others that see Ferrara as offering ‘soft porn’. I suppose that the latter is technically correct. My own reaction was to note that Ferrara and his regular DoP Ken Kelsch film the sex action in a very ‘matter of fact’ way. There is no attempt to make it ‘erotic’ – instead, it is left to the audience to create their own eroticism from what is shown. There is ‘violence’ in terms of spankings but I think that Ferrara distinguishes between the prostitutes who laugh and giggle after the event and the two women who are later shown to be very upset after assaults by Devereaux. The women playing the call girls (‘real’ prostitutes?) are treated as sex objects, but the amount of female flesh is almost matched by the acreage of Depardieu’s paunch (we would get more of a full frontal if the paunch wasn’t in the way). I’m not sure if this stops the film being sexist. The film also suggests that M. Devereaux has a sex addiction, or at least believes himself that he does.
I can’t really ‘spoil’ the narrative because the film follows the ‘real’ story – DSK was arrested and kept in prison on remand before being released on bail. Charges were then dropped. Clearly there is an opportunity for satire here – on the American legal system, the ‘equality’ of the law as it pertains to international bankers etc. What actually follows, I think, is a film which holds attention mainly through the performances of Depardieu and then Jacqueline Bisset as his wife who arrives from Paris, furious that she has to rescue him again. Bisset looks very good (is it really 46 years since I saw her in Bullitt?) and plays her role very well. (Her character has the inherited wealth and is concerned for her own status/public profile.)
Whatever critics might think about Depardieu he commands the screen and he exerts a certain kind of charm even as his flesh billows out all around him. The key scene here is when he is strip-searched in prison. The whole prison sequence is riveting. I read that Ferrara employed ‘real’ prison warders. It’s hilarious but somehow Depardieu keeps his dignity. The other prisoners, real hard guys, look bemused but respectful.
The ‘real’ DSK case fizzled out (the prosecutor decided that the victim would not be a reliable witness in court) with suggestions in the media that both DSK was being stitched up in the way the case was constructed but also that he was probably guilty. Either way he wasn’t able to pursue a political career and is now (according to Wikipedia) facing further charges in France. What does Ferrara’s film offer in response? Well, I enjoyed the film on several levels without condoning the behaviour of M. Devereaux. The audience I was with also seemed to enjoy it and one man on the front row laughed uproariously at regular intervals. Ferrara also showed that the story could be told without resorting to tabloid sensationalism. I’m not sure I learned too much about international banking or the US legal system but I do feel that some questions were raised and some positions/arguments exposed. Overall a good thing I think.
The film is released in the UK by Altitude Films:
The debut director, Cristian Nemescu, along with his sound editor Andrei Toncu, died in a car crash before this film was completed; hence the ‘endless’ (i.e. ‘unfinished’). The film world lost great talent because California Dreamin’ is a striking debut. It pits small town Romania against Americans, or specifically, NATO troops who are trying to get radar equipment, via train, to the Serbian border during the Civil War. However, the local station master, superbly played by Razvan Vasilescu) has a grudge against the US as they failed to liberate him, and his family, at the end of World War II. He keeps the train ‘grounded’ for five days while the laborious government bureaucracy tries to catch up with him. Even when the Minister for Transport arrives, he remains implacable.
He’s also bleeding the village dry through his corruption. It’s something then, that we can have a grudging admiration for this character, Doiaru, as he fights a losing battle with his 17 year-old daughter, seductively played by Maria Dinulescu, who falls for one of the Americans.
Nemescu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tudor Voican, is equally scathing, and sympathetic to, both his native Romanians and the Americans, embodied particularly by the ‘no nonsense’ Captain Jones (Armand Assante). He never fails to exploit the humour of the situation; the Elvis impersonator at the village’s 100th anniversary celebrations (which is a repeat of one they had a few months earlier) is a particular highlight. Monica’s (Dinelescu) whirlwind ‘romance’ with the soldier is well portrayed; she’s convincingly far more knowing than her 17 years.
Its two and a half hour running town could, and may have been, cut but it was right that the producer put the film out in the state it was at Nemescu’s demise. If Nemescu’s eye for the absurd is sharp I was less impressed by the Dogma style handheld camera, occasionally using telephoto lens which created a great deal of shake.
During the first half of this film (that I knew had been a Cannes success earlier this year) I did wonder what I was going to get out of it – apart from a terrific soundtrack, production design and camerawork. At the end I was genuinely surprised that 140 minutes had passed. As I began to read about it I realised that I had taken in much more than I had been conscious of at the time. This is certainly highly intelligent and literate cinema focusing on a world I’ve never experienced, though as I’m roughly the same age as the central character I can understand his reactions to events whether they are dramatic, mundane or surreal. I’m still not sure whether I ‘enjoyed’ the film, but I was certainly engrossed by it.
This is the fifth film written and directed by the Neapolitan Paulo Sorrentino since 2001’s One Man Up. The two most successful and best known in the UK are The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008). The central character Jep Gambardella is played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Jep is a flâneur, a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man but who is now at 65 primarily a socialite who knows all the leading figures of Rome’s high society. As many commentators have suggested, The Great Beauty appears at first glance to draw on Fellini’s La dolce vita from 1960, especially given its mixture of parties and social events attended by the glitterati and religious leaders of Rome and located in beautiful gardens, palaces etc (as well as Jep’s own apartment by the Coliseum). But in the earlier film Marcello Mastroianni is a journalist in his thirties and Rome is a rejuvenated city enjoying the economic boom in post-war Italy. By contrast, Jep is 65 and his Rome appears defeated (if still beautiful, at least in its classical buildings). The Great Beauty is a film about death and regret – but it does end on a note that is both melancholy and potentially positive.
The Great Beauty is so stylish with its impeccable CinemaScope compositions and crane shots and its almost operatic use of music and staging that its layered narrative and snappy dialogue are easily lost in an aesthetic swoon. There is a distinct sense of loss and waste – quite literally in the characters who disappear. The film is so stuffed with literary references that without a great deal of background it isn’t possible to read the narrative fully. The film begins with what I think are the opening lines of Journey to the End of Night (1932) by Céline – a novel I don’t know and had to look up. Jep constantly refers to Flaubert and the concept of nothingness. As far as I can work out this nothingness is a condition both of his own life and of Rome itself. I recommend the article by Pasquale Iannone in Sight & Sound, October 2013 as helpful in trying to make sense of the film. Like Iannone, I was struck by several scenes which seemed indebted to Buñuel. Iannone refers to the animals in surreal settings but I also thought of the haute bourgeoisie ‘trapped’ in social situations at dinner, at parties etc. In the press notes Sorrentino discusses his collaboration with screenwriter Umberto Contarello and how he views Rome still as a superior kind of tourist attraction, even though he has made it his home. This idea is enunciated in Jep’s voiceover. Rome is indeed a city ‘eternal’ in its attractions and mysteries, seductive yet ‘empty’. Sorrentino tells us that the film is in effect a paean to classical Italian cinema, its directors, stars and films. I don’t think I know that cinema well enough to comment but I did think, during the latter stages of the film, about an Italian director who was actually born in Rome (unlike Sorrentino or Fellini and Pasolini, both discussed by Sorrentino). Oddly, Roberto Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960), although a completely different kind of film, does share some ingredients including the fading aristocracy and the power plays of the church.
I can appreciate that The Great Beauty would probably repay a second or even a third viewing. It also features a soundtrack that deserves further attention. The film seems to be doing reasonable business in the UK (nearly £500,000 after ten days). Perhaps the stir at Cannes in May has helped. Given the splendour of its sound and images I suspect that the Blu-ray may do well.