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Family disvalued – Cronenberg’s tragicomedy of the path to nowhere

Image credits: WESTCOAST MANIA: David Cronenberg gifts us a body shop of humours for a change.

Following on from my body horror piece on David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (2022), here is another movie of his I recently got to see, and by accident – Maps to the Stars (2014). This is more satire than horror and is an unusual but successful departure for the director.

By Emad Aysha

Here, Cronenberg sets his sights on the superficial world of Hollywood. This has been done to death, but believe me, you’ve never seen it like this. The story nominally follows the mysteriously innocent character of Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) as she travels a long distance from Florida to California for no apparent reason, eager to put on the trappings of celebrity life.

She claims to be an ex-babysitter, yet can afford to hire a limo to whisk her around Beverly Hills. She covers much of her body and wears black gloves for some reason. Through a celebrity contact from Twitter – none other than Carrie Fischer – she gets a job with hopelessly twisted actress Havana Segrand, played by the still gorgeous Julianne Moore. She becomes her assistant, basically a babysitter for adults.

Havana has her dark secrets, claiming she was ‘molested’ by her actress mother and at the same time fantasizing about her, even trying to do a remake of her mother’s award-winning movie. (You laugh when you see clips of this so-called black-and-white classic. The acting is so dramatic and pretentious it hurts).

She’s on a cocktail of drugs that gives her hallucinations, fearing she’ll never equal her mom, and she’s so obsessed with her career that she starts celebrating when a friend of hers has a personal tragedy – her little boy drowns in her swimming pool – because it means she’ll get the part.

As for Agatha, she’s here to get back to her own twisted family. She just got out of a mental institute and wants to reconnect with her dad, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who is a guru to the rich and famous, her boy actor brother Benjie (Evan Bird), and her mom, Christina (Olivia Williams). It looks like she’s stalking her brother, who is a right royal prick himself and in rehab, but in fact, she wants to make amends for what she did.

She burned their house down, almost killing herself, and all while she was trying to consummate a marriage with her baby brother. (Growing up, he looks like Malcolm in the Middle’s evil twin brother!) It doesn’t look as twisted as you think. It turns out that their parents are brother and sister, by accident. All poor Agatha was doing was trying to be like her parents, live up to their ‘example’ if you get what I mean.

That’s really what the movie is all about. Absent role-models. Their parents are more messed up than their kids, and if their kids are wrong, they’ve got an excuse. They have no one to look up to; if anything, their parents are putting undue pressure on them, not allowing them to be carefree kids. Poor Benjie is a star, and his parents negotiate on his behalf.

They’re so obsessed with success and so fearful for their kids’ future they force them to be adults when they aren’t ready. Benjie comes off as an awful and fake person at first – visiting a kid with cancer as a PR gimmick, thinking she has the still-fashionable AIDS. But once you discover his and his sister’s story, you begin to sympathize with him, and the actor playing him gives an excellent, sincere, and understated performance.

Everything is about keeping up appearances in this world. Witness the genius of the director in getting a guy we all know and really like, John Cusack, to be a complete shit. He beats up Agatha at one point because he’s afraid she will ruin the image he has made for himself, meaning expose his incestuous marriage.

In one pivotal scene, his wife explains how she hates the post-modern furniture in her house, deliberately picked by her husband for photo shoots. It makes her feel ‘exposed’; so much for your house being your castle.

Things spin out of control when Havana does it with Agatha’s boyfriend, the limo driver (played rather plastically by Robert Pattinson), just out of jealousy. Agatha repeatedly bashes her head in with her own acting award. Benjie is also haunted by hallucinations (also on pills) of the poor girl with cancer – she died before he could make a movie about her – and ends up killing a costar, a teeny tiny boy. The most John Cusack can complain about is how his son gets recast because of this heinous crime!

CELEBRITY BLOOPERS: Julianne Moore as Havana and Evan Bird as Benjie. Lives of the rich and famous? More like deaths!

Finally, Benjie and Agatha consummate their marriage while taking pills. I presume to go to sleep forever, and the story ends. Oh, after their mother puts herself on fire. John Cusack pushes her into their pool in a half-assed attempt to save her.

Cleansing and dunking are Christian symbolism, I presume. The long gloves Agatha wears are meant to hide her disfigurement, true enough, but I think they are also meant to cut her off from human contact symbolically. As for the burning, that’s also purification. such as wiping away the original sin of incest.

To follow on from the previous article, Mr Behzad explains the sex/surgery connection as a masochistic desire to deform the body resulting from an unconscious human ambition to destroy the race, maybe towards something better. Well, the celebrities here are never satisfied with themselves.

I’d add that they are ‘punishing’ their bodies for not being perfect, for decaying over time. Just look at the eroticism of suicide and S&M in Mishima - A Life in Four Chapters (1985). There’s a comedic pretend suicide scene here, too, resulting in a dead dog.

I guess psychological horror is worse than the bodily variety, and psychological horror that is the self-inflicted kind is worse still. Arab celebrities, be warned. Wonder what Iranian celebrities are like behind the makeup?!

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Emad Aysha
Academic researcher, journalist, translator and sci-fi author. The man with the mission to bring Arab and Muslim literature to an international audience, respectably.
Emad Aysha
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