I have seen reviews that focus on the film only as satire or as a Cronenberg film. It’s as much Bruce Wagner’s (who wrote the screenplay) but it feels as if Cronenberg has subtly channeled his great visceral sensibility into this story of people’s suffering. I agree with Roy, the characters are no ghastly types and are realised with great feeling, not least because the actors knew when to exercise restraint. It might not be the kind of body horror of his earlier career. Flesh, however, seems still of central importance.
After Shivers (1975), one’s sense of bodily integrity lives in constant threat in a Cronenberg film. This latest film was reminiscent of Dead Ringers (1988) in its air of tangible menace that fearsome (Freudian) drama of male dominance of female reproduction sustained. People kept their clothes on in A Dangerous Method (2011), and Cronenberg moved the conversation to desire (in our minds) rather than pure body invasion, although Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein begged for mortification at the hands of Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung. This creates a neat lead into Maps to the Stars and Bruce Wagner’s insider script. Havana’s visceral healing sessions with John Cusack – her crying out as he touches her ‘healing’ points – seems to develop that idea (from Keira Knightley’s Sabine Spielrein) that mental torture is expressed and expunged through the body – with complex results. In Existenz (1999), Cronenberg explored a world where his characters could jack into various games and experiences through portals inserted into their physical bodies. As the gamers found an increasing difficulty in distinguishing what was real or not, there is the same confusion for characters here. Compared to Existenz, this Hollywood world – with pills etc – means the jacking-in is cleaner, less messy physically whilst still devastating mentally.
This is, however, as much Bruce Wagner’s film, who explains his concept (in relation to ghost stories) in an interesting article here. There has been great focus on how all the dialogue is drawn from situations in real life and the publicity has played up its ‘Hollywood Babylon’ credentials. Sunset Boulevard (1950) is an obvious reference, in Gloria Swanson’s representation of a life that’s moved beyond reality and into the realms of fantasy. In that film, we watched people being eaten alive (not least Erich von Stroheim in being cast at all) and felt ourselves separate from what Hollywood does to people. In A Star is Born (1954) we celebrated the resilience (and loyalty) of Mrs Norman Maine in Judy Garland’s public declaration, rejecting the superficiality and callousness of Hollywood. The Player (like Maps to the Stars) draws on a noir-ish air of the 1940s. Mulholland Drive (2001) (the road itself appears in this film) returns us to psychology in its descent into Naomi Watts’ subconscious – a piece of ‘dreamwork’ set in the dream factory.
Maps, though, felt more grounded than this. By chance, I watched Hal Ashby’s great satire, Shampoo (1975), again this week, just after the Cronenberg. Somehow Warren Beatty’s guru-hairdresser, finding his world unravelling at breakneck speed becomes a very ordinary man caught up in an unreal spiral. Ashby’s context of Nixon’s election, his use of a clearer political context for the film, made an interesting contrast to the other-worldliness of Cronenberg-Wagner’s film. And Maps does present its characters as a kind of freak show, sitting somewhere between the surreal fantasy of Lynch’s film and the debunking of Ashby’s. But maybe more interesting (and relevant) questions spill out from this film – about worlds where youth, constant self-representation, the need to sustain a profile – and their potential dehumanising effects – and how these aren’t (now) only the stuff of Hollywood nightmares.