Maps To The Stars (2014)
A film by David Cronenberg
Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Olivia Williams
Synopsis: A 3rd degree burn victim returns to Hollywood after being disowned by her family for setting the family home on fire and almost killing her younger brother. She is hired as a personal assistant to an out of work actress (Julianne Moore) looking to resurrect her career by playing her own mother in a remake of a golden age silver screen drama. Her younger brother is a famous child actor, now adolescent, and just out of rehab. Her father is a new age spiritualist and massage therapist to the stars, full of bogus one-liners and cheap psychology.
What will her return to Tinseltown provoke? People will self-combust, limo drivers cum aspiring actors will play aliens on television sci-fi soaps, and dead people will appear as ghosts. The question is, does history repeat itself, or rather…does history duplicate itself?
Italian Neo-Realist style VS. American time/memory/reality-shifting style
In a previous review of an Italian autobiographical drama (Asia Argento’s Incompresa (2014)), I pitted the American self-referential style of storytelling against the Italian neo-realist humanist style. I argued that Italians were less cerebral, thus had more emotion, which made their stories more impactful. The impact was measured by the apparent degree of honesty and direct communication the artist broadcasts to her audience.
Asia’s movie was an autobiographical drama, designed to connect directly with viewers. Every event we witness exists on two levels: as an actual moment of her life, and as its artistic interpretation.
The American style could never connect as earnestly, naked and confessional as the Italian style. Movies such as Bladerunner, Blue Velvet, Being John Malkovich, have a fantastical element too fictional that prevents this immediate conversationalist style.
But looking back, and encountering Croneberg’s latest Maps To The Stars, it seems as if the American style of fragmented, memory-shifting, slippery narrative, can achieve a similar connective effect through other means.
The American style of storytelling assumes too openly that truth is ambiguous, and that the self does not cohere. In the story we have here, the narrator of the story (Mia Wasikowska) is openly schizophrenic, making us expect an unreliable view of reality. But her storytelling style hints at a subtle hidden shape beneath the chaos of characters, events, and urges.
Symmetry, asymmetry, shapes, and reasoning
Intuition tells me it is a matter of symmetry, asymmetry, and equilibrium. Story elements wrap themselves around each character in a way that shifts the balance of what we know of the story. It is not people that drive the drama, but situations that are contagious and spread throughout every interaction. Events attach themselves to characters with varying degrees of grip. What appear to be coincidences might actually be engineered synchronicities (meaningful coincidences).
Here are some examples to illustrate the point:
- There is a movie within the movie. It is called “Stolen Waters”. It is about a girl who is placed in an asylum under suspicion of being a pyromaniac. It was made in the late 1940’s and is being remade in the present day. Julianne Moore’s out of work actress covets the lead role in the remake because it was played by her mother, who like the character she played in the movie died in a tragic fire. Julianne believes playing her own mother will be therapeutic.
When she doesn’t get the role, she sulks, but an ‘accident’ involving water (the opposite of fire), helps her finally land the role. She is happy, detects a subtle justice in the chaos, but is killed before she gets to act the part.
- Mia Wasikowska is a third degree burn victim who almost killed her brother a few years prior when she set fire to the family home. She is a diagnosed schizophrenic under medication. She wants to write a screenplay about a love relationship between a brother and sister. This reflects her own life on two levels: her own obsession with her brother, and her own family’s long-standing secret: her parents are siblings!
Mia is the narrator. She is obsessed with enacting a marriage ceremony with her younger brother. The ceremony is simultaneously a suicide pact. She believes in a kind of suspended everlasting love. There is a poem she repeats over again which talks about writing names on different surfaces (textbooks, sand, cement stairs). She ensnares the limo driver in her story. Her ultimate goal is to enact the marriage ceremony ritual again.
- Robert Pattinson plays a limo driver. It is worth mentioning that in his previous movie with Cronenberg (Cosmopolis (2012)) he played a businessman being driven in a limo throughout New York city. In that movie, the last scene has him delivering a long monologue (highly cerebral) precisely about asymmetry, in life, in biology, in causality, and in storytelling.
In this story, Pattinson is also an aspiring actor.He lands a role in a science-fiction show titled ‘Blue Matrix’. His make-up includes a burn-like scar on the same side of his face that Mia Wasikowska has her burn scar. He is initially an observer, a stand-in for the audience. He rejects her flirtation, but eventually he repents and comes around. He betrays her when he sleeps with her boss, but by that time we realize he is just a drone outside of the narrator’s eternal grace.