Who'd a thunk that out of all the disturbing images Canadian director David Cronenberg has given us over the years, the most shocking of the whole bunch might very well turn out to be that of Julianne Moore, sitting on a toilet, panties around her ankles, audibly farting as she pisses and moans about her constant constipation?
The filmmaker who brought us THE DEAD ZONE and THE FLY, VIDEODROME and NAKED LUNCH, might have finally settled on a scene that tops all recent gore-porn. You can have your HUMAN CENTIPIDEs and HOSTELs, and throw in the first SAW for good measure, but watching one of the best actresses in film try to flatulate with some verve is almost as unnerving as the most gruesome vivsection. We're not supposed to see stuff like this. Starve yourself for a role, or play someone mentally deficient -- that's cool, just unsettling enough for an Oscar. But dignified thespians don't ever allow themselves to expose themselves in something this crude. Unless they're in a Cronenberg film, that is.
MAPS TO THE STARS is ostensibly a Hollywood satire, but not really. Working from an original script by novelist Bruce Wagner, who specializes in takedowns of Tinseltown, the movie is an odd cohabitation of contrasting tones. Shot one way, this could have been merely a scathing indictment of Hollywood gloss; shot Cronenberg's way, it becomes not only that tale, but also gradually morphs into something much more.
Beginning over fifteen years ago with EXISTENZ, Cronenberg has been steadily branching out from his grimy horror roots; I'm big-time digging what he's done with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, EASTERN PROMISES, A DANGEROUS METHOD and COSMOPOLIS. Working with others' scripts, he's managed to paradoxically make his films ever more Cronenbergian.
Which means what, exactly? What do we want, get, require from what Cronenberg does? A focus on the flesh, and the psychic nature of wounds; the transformations of self, and the inevitable reversion to animal instinct. All of these elements from his earlier films are still very much present in the past decade of work, but there's a kind of formal maturity that seems to have taken hold. His framing is precise, boxing in characters within their own rigid squares; nothing extraneous is ever allowed to enter their world.
In this one, for a film set in Hollywood, we barely see it, any of it; the odd shot of that famous white sign on a hill, along with a constant yellow sun shining down on palm trees. And that be it, basically. (No surprise, since most of the film, almost astonishingly, was shot in Toronto.) We are left with Hollywood as a state of mind, a no-man's land of deception and desire that destroys what it seeks, a handy metaphor for the masks people put on as they seek other selves. Hollywood satire's been done to death; Cronenberg's now using showbiz as a prop to find out what that demise means.
Even so, even knowing the dark mind of this consummate crafstman, halfway through this film, one is tempted to think that Cronenberg in old age has gone a bit soft. Where are his trademark eccentricities, his dark interjections? That's what I was wondering.
I shouldn't have worried. And I won't spoil anything, but let's just say that the film has moments of violence (both physical and spiritual) that are as shocking as anything he's filmed in the past. There's a blunt, brute ferocity to the kind of outburts of his most recent films, as if the violence itself is erupting from a reservoir deep within the dark hearts of his leads. Cronenberg's violence hurts, truly hurts, and that might be because it's always just apt.
Such a cool, cinematic restraint this dude has, but he's also not afraid to go gonzo in spades. Only here it's depicted in a slightly different slant. That embarrassingly physical, distinctly human element of his characters, always a source of alienation and suspicion in most of his best work, suddenly, through unlikely humour, adds a lower layer of grief to what makes people succumb. To watch a Hollywood star, Julianne Moore, portray a Hollywood star, fictional even to herself, desperately trying to shit out what she can of herself, is a simple sight that combines horror and mirth in a way that's almost obscene. Moore crashed out on the crown, in front her assistant, unable to excrete, wondering why she's stopped up, is both sad and terrifying. It's as if the director is showing us what true horror has come down to as the century starts to groove. Us, our grunts. In Cronenberg's career, we all go back to the body, along with the mind that tries to make sense of its unsubtle needs. As she leaves the john, Moore shouts in surprise "It stinks in here!', and the fact that she's shocked at her own stench kind of says it all about us.