In the first twenty minutes of David Cronenberg's film, Maps to the Stars (2015), lawyers, a psychologist, and the parents of a child star meet to discuss the 13-year old boy's substance abuse. The kid, apparently modeled on Macauley Culkin, feels that he is a has-been at 13; he acts like an aging diva from a movie like A Star is Born. The sequence is filmed in shots showing each interlocutor facing the camera, only one person in each frame with the editor cutting between the people as they speak -- in other words, the effect of the sequence is spatially disorienting with nervous jump-cuts to shots that otherwise match except for the identity of the person speaking. The sequence is abstract, alienating, and designed to emphasize the isolation of the people involved in the meeting -- each man or woman or child occupies his (or her) own space discontinuous with the space of others. Cronenberg's icy technique highlights the film's themes -- everyone in the movie is radically isolated from everyone else by their self-absorption, narcissism, and cruelty. One of the only two-shots in the entire film is the last image, showing two doomed characters together on the front step of a burned-out house: the characters are allowed a brief communion because they have embarked on a mutual suicide pact.
Cronenberg is fundamentally a horror film director and Maps to the Stars draws on tropes from that genre -- the characters are haunted by apparitions of the dead who appear from time to time. People die by fire and water -- death is elemental. The protagonist is said to be "disfigured" by burn injuries and her scars are emblematic of the secret deformities afflicting the other characters. Horror is generally a morally unambiguous genre -- physical monstrosity reflects moral evil and Cronenberg metes out brutal, gory justice to the various villains inhabiting the film. Of course, the problem with post-modern horror is that there are no redeeming characters in sight -- everyone in Maps to the Stars deserves their awful fate and, of course, there is no virtuous heroine to be saved (and no brave hero to rescue her). The premise of the film is that a 13-year old child star lives with his parents, a famous psychiatrist with highly idiosyncratic modes of treatment, and his wife, a hysterical stage-mother. For reasons that are completely unclear to me, the child-star's parents are incestuous, a brother and sister -- this incest will mirror the relationship between the 13-year old actor and his mentally ill (and disfigured) sister. It seems that this sister, Agatha, burned down the family's house seven years earlier, suffering injuries in the course of that fire. Agatha has taken a bus to Hollywood where she intends to confront her brother and parents. In Hollywood, Agatha finds a boyfriend, a limousine driver played by the callow and annoying Robert Pattinson. Agatha is friends with Carrie Fisher who finds her a job working as a personal assistant for a famous actress played by Julianne Moore. Moore is on the verge of a crack-up -- she is desperate to be cast in the main role of a remake of a famous Hollywood picture in which her mother starred (and for which her mother received a Golden Globe). Cronenberg and his screenwriter like dubious symmetries -- Julianne Moore's mother died in a fire. Before the film ends, people will be burned to death or drown in swimming pools or be bludgeoned beyond recognition -- a shaggy dog even gets gratuitously gunned-down. Agatha's arrival destabilizes the fragile equilibrium. Julianne Moore decides to have sex with Agatha's boyfriend, probably to reassure herself that she remains young and desirable. Agatha witnesses this betrayal precipitating the various calamities that comprise the film's denoument.
Everyone in the movie is on the edge of hysteria. Dead children haunt the boy-star and drive him to viciously assault his co-star, a little kid who is about seven years old, but already a scorpion who seems motivated to displace the actor as star of the Bad Babysitter franchise. Julianne Moore is filmed in a way contrived to humiliate this actress -- she appears in a three-way sex scene with another woman, flees the bedroom, and, then, admits that "I am a bad dyke." She has to masturbate to excite Pattinson's character and, then, has to wriggle around in a degrading sex scene with the actor. At one point, Cronenberg puts her on the toilet, showing her flatulently defecating -- the picture makes you wish that Cronenberg was willing to show this actress a bit more chivalry and cut her a little slack. (I don't know who Cronenberg is revenging himself on, the film after all is a sort of roman a clef -- but his revenge is not a pretty picture.) Moore's character is so repugnant that when she is beaten to death the audience is supposed to cheer her bloody demise, a scene that channels Carrie since the burn victim's menstruation triggers the assault. Cronenberg's cold, analytical style and resolute refusal to employ any melodramatic methods to emphasize this material is at odds with the film's lurid themes and garish emotional overtones. (I suppose a more robustly melodramatic mise-en-scene would simply ladle additional hysteria on a narrative that is already hysterical enough). The prudish Canadian sensibility moralizing the material also makes the film's prurient subject matter vaguely risible. (The movie is a Canadian-German co-production.) As you watch the picture, you think to yourself -- this must be an adaptation of some ancient Greek tragedy to modern Hollywood. But you can't think of the tragedy and, after a while, the proceedings with their auto-da-fes and other brutalities comes to seem just a wee bit ridiculous.