David Cronenberg spent his entire career making films outside of the Hollywood studio system, financing his productions independently and filming mostly in and around his native Toronto or in studios in London. For Maps to the Stars, however, he was drawn by the subject matter to southern California where the natural light and zany energy provided the key ingredients to a sun-drenched noir that looks unlike anything he’d previously filmed. Collaborating with Bruce Wagner, who adapted the script from his own novel, the story infuses a social satire about fame, ambition and New Age flim-flammery with the evergreen Cronenbergian themes of psychosexual tension and body dysmorphia. The result is a twisty tale of unhinged strivers, unfolding beneath the blue skies and palm trees of L.A., where the seedy underbelly of social dysfunction is exposed to clear sunlight.

Maps to the Stars presents a fractured narrative, split among interwoven groups of characters who cross into and through each other’s’ lives in sometimes tangential and sometimes profound ways. This foreshadows some of the shocking personal relationships that are gradually revealed as the true nature of their interconnectedness becomes apparent. A stacked cast turn in career-high performances, presumably upping their game for the privilege of working with the director who, in addition to his reputation for body horror and chilly atmospherics, has cultivated a reputation for coaxing the best out of his actors. Julianne Moore inhabits the role of a fading movie star, Havana Segrand, who finds herself aging out of relevance but refuses to go without a fight. She’ll let nothing stand in the way of her ambition, not even her own dignity, and Moore’s whinging, nervous portrayal of existential panic is at once difficult to watch and fascinating in its nakedness. As her quack therapist, Dr. Stafford Weiss, John Cusack is straight-faced and dialed-back as he works Havana over with a sexualized massage while muttering dialogue meant to unlock her mother-related trauma. The story feints toward some kind of inappropriate relationship between these two, but Wagner’s script has much darker things in store.

The wildcard element arrives in the personage of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly guileless ingenue arriving in L.A. by bus with the apparent intention of touring the homes of the rich and famous. With her hired limo driver, Jerome (Robert Pattinson), she embarks on exploring the city with a hidden agenda that takes her inside the orbit of Havana Segrand and Dr. Weiss where she becomes, respectively, a valued personal assistant and a feared source of chaos and destruction. A clue to Agatha’s dark side lies in the long gloves she wears to hide mysterious burn scars, which are also visible on her neck and peeking from behind the bob that frames her face. As the true nature of her psychology emerges, her scars become more visible, culminating in a revealing black cocktail dress which displays warped skin across her chest and back. Here is the familiar Cronenberg touch of body dysmorphia, as if inner turmoil couldn’t help but bubble to the surface in visual evidence of madness.

Cronenberg has argued that all filmmakers are highly body conscious, whether they know it or not, “because the thing you’re shooting most is actors; you’re shooting bodies. That’s your subject matter.” The Hollywood setting is particularly apt for illustrating this theme, where people like Havana prostrate themselves in the worship of youthfulness, and experience the aging and sagging of their own bodies as a loss of identity. Dr. Weiss’s son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a former child star who’s already over the hill at 14, displays all the callousness and cynicism of a middle-aged adult, his youth curdled by early fame and success. In one of the film’s interwoven twists that cascade through its third reel, Agatha turns out to be his long-lost sister, and her arrival upends the family dynamic as well as Havana’s tenuous grip on reality.

The sunny vibe of the setting bristles against the tension of the characters’ various manias and grievances, leading to a shocking final act where blood flows and bodies burn. Cronenberg tightly manages the tone throughout, keeping the actors on a knife edge between satire and horror. Ghostlike visitations appear to multiple characters, but these, insisted the director in interviews, aren’t paranormal manifestations so much as intrusive memories of the dead, a kind of emotional haunting. And Hollywood, with all its legends of dead icons immortalized in stars on the Walk of Fame, is a particularly haunted place.

Maps to the Stars released in 2015 and, despite some enthusiastic reviews, tanked at the box office. Julianne Moore won Best Actress for her performance at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but American audiences may not have known what to make of her wounded, teeth-gnashing performance, or of the sympathetic Agatha’s dark turn towards malevolence as her true motives become known. Cronenberg has made a career of brilliantly and unapologetically exploring darkness and disaffection with what feels like an unblinking gaze―an instinct which he appears to have passed down to his son, Brandon, who made one of 2020’s most startling techno-thrillers in Possessor. Cronenberg himself has recently devoted more of his energy to acting, appearing regularly in the TV series “Star Trek: Discovery,” among other roles. A rumored project based on his own novel, Consumed, has yet to earn a green light, but the director has insisted that “if I never make another movie, that’s perfectly OK.” With his inimitable style and vision, Cronenberg has apparently said all that he needs to say, and yet one can’t help but wonder how his mind might find its next take on the shadows and urges that still reside within us all.

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