Welcome to Cronenbergia


(c) The Times


The other evening I watched Maps to the Stars, the latest offering from Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.  And it occurred to me that the grisly and disturbing things that 30 or 40 years ago were safely locked inside Cronenberg’s head, and only appeared outside that head whenever he made a movie, are today loose in the world.  They now walk among us.  Even worse, they’re now regarded as normal.


Following his takes on corporate power (2012’s Cosmopolis) and psychiatry (2011’s A Dangerous Method), Maps to the Stars sees Cronenberg turn his baleful and probing eye on Hollywood.  It’s the tale of a psychotherapist, played by John Cusack, who treats his wealthy actor and actress clients to a no-holds-barred and barking-mad form of self-help therapy; the psychotherapist’s wife, played by Olivia Williams, who manages the career of their movie-star son; the son himself, played by Evan Bird, who’s a ghastly pubescent Justin Bieber clone; and a fading and deranged Hollywood star, played by Julianne Moore, who when she isn’t receiving treatment from Cusack is being tormented by memories of her deceased, abusive Joan Crawford / Mommie Dearest-style mother.


The lives of all four are turned inside-out and upside-down when Mia Wasikowska arrives in town one morning on the Greyhound bus from Florida.  I won’t describe what Wasikowska, playing an enigmatic young lady who conceals extensive burn-scars beneath her long black gloves, eventually does to the four other protagonists.  I’ll just say that most of what follows can blamed on Carrie Fisher.


The horribleness of Hollywood has long been a popular topic, both in novels like Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) and Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (1955) and in movies from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) up to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).  Nonetheless, there’s something fresh in seeing Cronenberg take a scalpel to it with his customary clinicalness.  But what I found most interesting, and more than a little disturbing, was seeing how elements that once seemed to belong only in his grotesque ‘body-horror’ movies of the 1970s and 1980s have now crossed not just into mainstream culture, but into mainstream reality.


There’s the fruitcake psychotherapy peddled by Cusack – and it’s surely no more fruitcake than the self-help that’s extolled in every second book now on sale in W.H. Smith’s – that brings to mind the ‘psychoplasmics’ treatment practised by Oliver Reed in The Brood (1980).  Admittedly, Cusack’s method is probably a little less severe than Dr Ollie’s one, which induced Samantha Eggar to spawn a squad of homicidal mutant toddlers who then set about attacking and murdering anyone who’d caused her mental anguish: her parents, her daughter, her ex-husband, her ex-husband’s potential new girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the ghastly child-star played by Bird and his equally-ghastly friends – who’re too young to know what a ‘yuppie’ is but are sexualised far beyond their years – call to mind the infected humans, including children and adolescents, in Shivers (1974); turned into slavering sex maniacs by artificially-created parasites.


Even the luxury home of Cusack and Williams – which we learn has been drooled over by various feature writers from various expensive and pretentious home-interiors magazines – is a fearsomely bare and oppressive structure of glass and concrete, calling to mind the cavernous, soulless clinics, condominiums and headquarters where Cronenberg’s mad-scientist villains used to do their dirty work: Reed’s Somafree Institute in The Brood, Starliner Towers in Shivers, the Keloid Institute in Rabid (1977) and ConSec HQ in Scanners (1981).


And early on, there’s a black joke about AIDS – a disease that, had it appeared in a Cronenberg movie in the 1970s, would have been dismissed by the critics as yet another of his distasteful, sex-obsessed, science-fictional gimmicks.


One echo of Cronenberg’s earlier work that’s slightly unfortunate, though, is the weakness of the leading male characters in Maps to the Stars.  Back in the day, Cronenberg rarely allowed actors like Frank Read in Rabid, Art Hindle in The Brood or Stephen Lack in Scanners, or indeed, Jude Law in the more recent eXistenZ (1999), to exhibit much depth.  Compared to a barnstorming performance by Julianne Moore and a hypnotic one by Wasikowska, Cusack’s turn as the film’s villain is fairly two-dimensional.  He’s entertaining enough in a pantomime way, but he’s two-dimensional nonetheless.


Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson drifts in and out of the film as an aspiring actor / writer who has to chauffeur his more successful peers around in a black limousine as a way of making ends meet; and with his distant tone and manner, he fails to make much of an impression.  In fact, other than provide a rather half-hearted love interest for Wasikowska, it’s difficult to see what Pattinson’s doing in the film at all.  Perhaps Cronenberg wanted to slip in a statement about the fickleness of the big-business world.  Pattinson, of course, played the mega-wealthy mogul in Cosmopolis, who ran his global corporation from the back of a massive and extravagantly high-tech limousine.  In Maps to the Stars, he’s been reduced in status and fortune to the point where he has to earn a living by driving one.


That said, I have to admit that there’s one impressive male performance in Maps to the Stars, which is given by Evan Bird as the evil-little-bastard child star.  What’s galling about this character is that by the end of the film Bird, and Cronenberg, have actually managed to make us feel a smidgeon of sympathy for the diminutive shit.


Yes, I still expect Cronenberg’s films to be perverse.  However, feeling sorry for Justin Bieber was one perversion I just didn’t expect.