David Cronenberg is not known for spirituality and I've heard him in a commentary say that he believes in no separation between body and mind, believing there is no separate soul, in other words. His cold and physically intimate films reflect this and yet in 2015 he released Maps to the Stars, a film all about spirituality, Cronenberg's first to feature ghosts. Yet perhaps it's fair to say Cronenberg's ghosts are like Stanley Kubrick's ghosts in his adaptation of The Shining, not proof of an afterlife or soul but of something else, primarily reflections of the witness' psyche. One might see it as an indictment of spiritual beliefs, in fact, as this expertly made, amusing yet melancholy tragedy shows the paths of self-fulfilment leading to a confused self-destruction.
It almost sounds like I'm talking about what many consider to be Cronenberg's greatest film, Videodrome, where a religion surrounding television media slowly takes over the mind. But Maps to the Stars, as the title suggests, focuses more on the stars than the medium. We focus on two primarily--an obnoxious, Justin Bieberish child star named Benjie (Evan Bird) and an ageing actress named Havana (Julianne Moore) trying to win a coveted role in a prestigious film.
Many reviews focus on Moore's performance and she certainly is great here as a woman hopelessly lost in herself. This movie is a black comedy in a way--I remember in a DVD commentary hearing Cronenberg remark that he intended nearly all of his films to be funny except The Brood. But however completely selfish Havana is, she's never a caricature and horrible scenes like where she rejoices at the death of a child are complicated by remembering her therapy with Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help guru whose first scene with Havana has a distinctly S&M quality.
Like a C.O. who wants to be dominated in his off hours, Havana finds it a healing experience to lie face down in her underwear, getting her self affirmation mantra from a dominant man.
We hear a ritual chant several times in the movie that Stafford has in his books, it seems to be in praise of movie stars including a line, "I write your name in my notebook", seemingly reflecting the adoration of a teenager for a big star. It comes naturally from the lips of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman whose body is covered with burn scars who comes to town at the invitation of Carrie Fisher, who plays herself in the movie.
The scars and the sensuality tied to them seem to invoke Cronenberg's Crash, a film about people with a fetish for car accidents who achieve sexual arousal through stimulation of their many scars. Malformed or damaged bodies have always had a significant place in Cronenberg's films, though, and Agatha has a messiah quality that becomes more prevalent as the film progresses. Her sensuality and her delusion is an ultimate expression of the religion created by Havana and Stafford.
One wonders if Cronenberg considers the ending of the film to be happy as he considers the end of Videodrome to be. Whatever the case, the film ultimately presents a "New Flesh", a final form for the partially unconscious and chaotic precepts programmed by narcissism and ruthlessness in the name of a higher power.