Maps To The Stars and the dramas of David Cronenberg

As Maps To The Stars gets an R-rating from the MPAA, Ryan looks at the director David Cronenberg's talent for fiercely individual drama...

It really doesn’t seem that long since David Cronenberg completed his Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis, and subsequently found himself without a project to direct. He had plenty of projects in mind – Eastern Promises 2, a sequel to The Fly, and a satire named Maps To The Stars – yet bizarrely, he simply couldn’t get the financial backing to make any of them.

Happily, Cronenberg’s fortunes have changed since, and in November 2012, he finally got the financing he needed for that latter project. Written by Bruce Wagner (of Wild Palms fame) it’s described as a drama, thriller and satire. And from production company eOne’s brief summary alone, it sounds brilliant:

Led by the loathsome yet funny and touching child-star Benjie, we witness the convoluted world of shallow, selfish celebrities and their minions, all of whom are about to be manipulated and destroyed by the young woman who literally represents the fruit of their twisted machinations, Agatha, Benjie’s tormented, apparently psychotic sister. As much as it is a sharp, comic look at a vacant and corrupt world, Maps To The Stars is also a haunting ghost story.

Maps To The Stars began shooting last year, and the cast Cronenberg assembled is a great one: John Cusack as a millionaire self-help author, while Mia Wasikowska plays his “apparently psychotic” daughter. They’re supported by Julianne Moore as an actress, Robert Pattinson as a limo driver, and Carrie Fisher appearing in a cameo role.

If the premise sounds unusual and potentially twisted, then rest assured that Maps To The Stars’ MPAA rating suggests that it’ll be just as harsh and, well, Cronenbergian as we’ve come to expect from the maverick director of Videodrome, The Fly and A History Of Violence. It’s been given an R for what the certification board describes as “strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material.”

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Given that Cronenberg’s long since departed from the venereal horror genre he created himself in the 70s and 80s, it’s quite exciting to hear that Maps To The Stars appears to take a step back into the more grotesque style of filmmaking that once defined him. It’s not quite The Fly, but its themes of fame, pop psychology and perhaps even murder recall Cronenberg’s 1977 film, The Brood, with its family break-up drama and bizarre psychiatric techniques.

It was after The Fly that Cronenberg began to move away from horror and into more straight (but often still visceral) drama, and with 1988’s Dead Ringers, the filmmaker’s talent as a director of actors came to the fore. Shorn of the headline-grabbing mutations and gore of his most famous earlier work, Dead Ringers instead burrowed into the audience’s psyche with its sordid tale (loosely based on a real-life case) of twin Gynaecologists and their relationship with an actress (Genevieve Bujold). Jeremy Irons was little short of astonishing in his dual role as the twin doctors, not only bringing pathos and humanity to the characters, but also making them subtly distinct in their mannerisms and speech patterns. 

After the psychedelic jazz odyssey that was Naked Lunch, a loose adaptation of William S Burroughs’ infamous novel that owed as much to Cronenberg’s own ideas and sensibility as the original writer’s, the director reunited with Jeremy Irons for the little-seen drama, M Butterfly. A downbeat story (again loosely based on true events) about a French diplomat who embarks on an affair with a Chinese opera singer, and brings ruin on his reputation in the process, it barely registered at the box office in 1993.

Like so many of Cronenberg’s films of the past 20 years, there’s much that is unusual and even slightly unexpected about M Butterfly. Yet peel away the historical setting, and it deals with the same themes that all of his movies have explored since the late 80s: identity, and shifting perspectives in reality.

In Dead Ringers, the object of the twin doctors’ affection goes around for weeks without realising that she’s actually dating two people who’ve been ‘sharing’ her on alternate evenings. In M Butterfly, the French diplomat is either blissfully unaware of his lover’s true nature, or conveniently ignores it. The controversial Crash (1996) explores a group of people whose identities are defined by their obsession with their strange desires. 

The 1999 film eXistenZ was something of a throwback in the midst of all this. A Videodrome for the PlayStation era, it saw players of a virtual reality game so convincing that the lines between the digital realm and our own was impossible to spot. Yet even here, the theme of identity plays a secondary role: there’s a sense that co-stars Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh (both excellent) have lost themselves in a maze of nested realities, like mirrors reflecting each other into infinity.

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The 2002 drama Spider meditated on similar themes, with Ralph Fiennes (in an extraordinary turn) playing a protagonist whose personality has become mired in yet another virtual world: the one created in his own traumatised, troubled mind.

Few directors have probed the same questions and subject matters with as much variety or intelligence as David Cronenberg. Whether his stories are about coffee shop owners with an unaccountable knack for killing people with their bare hands (A History Of Violence), gangsters with hidden agendas (Eastern Promises) or billionaires on a road to self-destruction (Cosmopolis), the characters’ personalities are always in a state of flux. 

It’s this aspect of Cronenberg’s dramas, aside from the strength of the acting and filmmaking and their challenging subject matters, that makes them reliably compelling – and perhaps even universal. The characters in his dramas, with their secrets and their inner turmoil, aren’t so very different from us, even when their actions are shockingly out of the ordinary. As Cronenberg himself put it in a 2007 interview:

“I believe that every morning when we wake up, we have to reassemble ourselves, remember who we are, what we are, where we are, what is expected of us, what we expect of ourselves. You can assemble yourself in a different way if you really want to.”

With Maps To The Stars, Cronenberg is set to once again bring us a movie that explores flawed, perhaps even neurotic characters, this time in the middle of Hollywood. From the little we know so far, it sounds very much of a piece with the director’s remarkable body of work – though we’ll have to wait and see where the director’s investigations into the human condition take us this time. Because while Cronenberg’s films are thematically similar, they’re also eminently unpredictable.

Maps To The Stars is due out later in 2014.

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