David Cronenberg is near the top of the list of directors whose works resist snap judgments. His mix of black comedy and unabashed melodrama is so delicate, and in some ways so off-putting, that at times it's hard to tell if he's kidding or serious (the answer is usually both). He's been described as a horror filmmaker, and his longstanding fascination with bodily invasion and the fragility of flesh confirms that label—or does it? A good many of his films play like horror movies even if they don't have genetic mutations or other obvious "monsters." Why? Maybe because he's less interested in gore and goo than in the beasts within: the monstrous nature of obsession and desire; the difficulty of escaping oneself, physically or emotionally; the cruelty of the societies that enfold and define his characters. Look back over Cronenberg's filmography, and you realize that he hasn't made an according-to-Hoyle horror picture since 1986's "The Fly." The horrific quality seems to come more from his being appalled by what people can be, and do—and from being sympathetic to their urges anyway.
"Maps to the Stars," written by Bruce Wagner, is another work in the good old Cronenbergian vein. Although it's been dismissed in some quarters as minor Cronenberg—and criticized for "getting Hollywood wrong," or something like that; as if "Dead Ringers" cared about the fine points of gynecology—it's a sneakily powerful movie, so much so that its conceptual thinness isn't a deal-breaker. Not for nothing did Cronenberg model his remake of "The Fly" on tragic opera, then re-stage it with his regular composer Howard Shore as an actual opera, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang. This new film's cast of anxious, duplicitous, sometimes violent creative types rattle off declamatory dialogue so overwrought that it could be treated as arias scored for a 40-piece orchestra. The characters inhabit a Los Angeles that seems as intimate, even inbred, as a stereotypical backwoods town: every other scene reveals that characters you didn't know were connected are, in fact, part of an extended family, united not just by blood, but hunger for validation. They want luxury and fame as well, but those are signifiers of what they're truly after: adoration. Love. Unconditional acceptance.
Julianne Moore stars as Havana Segrand, a formidable actress whose star has begun to fade now that she's passed 50. Like a lot of characters in this film—and a lot of characters in Cronenberg's films, period, and Wagner's fiction—she's defined by her tragic past, and knows this all too well, and is palpably desperate to escape it and re-create herself. Ironically, though (and appropriately, since this is Cronenberg) she's trying to escape herself by crawling deeper into a psychological cage that's enclosed her since birth: Havana wants to star in a biographical drama about her late mother Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), a mercurial, psychologically and sexually abusive actress who could be a combination of Frances Farmer and Joan Crawford.
This one subplot, about an actress trying to master the awful memories of her mother by figuratively becoming her, gives you some clue what Cronenberg and Wagner are up to, not just with Havana but with all the major characters. Like Cronenberg's little-seen but fascinating "Spider," "Maps to the Stars" often feels like a ghost story made by people who don't believe in the supernatural. The mother appears to her daughter in a very straightforward way—as she might manifest herself in a theatrical production. But even though she's clearly an outgrowth of Havana's mangled psyche, you have to count her as an accusing spirit, rattling around in the haunted house of her daughter's damaged mind, and saying the most vile, undermining things. (As if the movie didn't already subtly echo "The Shining," Cronenberg has Clarice appearing to Havana in a bathtub: shades of room 237.)