Dead Stars: David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" and "Maps to the Stars"

No monsters seem more ghastly or disturbing in the films of David Cronenberg than his depiction of the rich.
Greg Cwik

David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (2012) is showing November 24 – December 23 and Maps to the Stars (2014) from November 25 – December 24, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.


Of the many grotesqueries and monsters that have appeared in the films of David Cronenberg—the brain-blowing psychics of Scanners; the fecal parasites that turn their hosts in violent lunatics in Shivers; the parthenogenetic bastard spawn of a deranged mother in The Brood; Dead Ringers’ drug-addled gynecologist identical twin brothers; the somatic video game system that plugs into your spine in eXistenZ, et cetera—none seems more ghastly, or more disturbing, than his depiction of the rich. They are nefarious, narcissistic, affluent malefactors who saunter through their own little solipsistic worlds, free from the proletarian notion of reality, with its petty consequences, its pitiable poor. In Cosmopolis (2012) and Maps to the Stars (2014), his pasquinades of the rich, Cronenberg remains as savage as in his body-horror films; but instead of violations of the flesh, rupturing heads and butchered bodies, he here basks in the repulsiveness of unmitigated, unfettered privilege.  

In Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s clinical adaptation of Don DeLillo’s lissom 2003 novel, a 28-year-old billionaire currency speculator named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) represents the insidious apathy of American capitalism. He is literally sealed off from the outside world, as he rides around in his hermetic limo, watching the tumult and chaos of a riotous reality through his tinted windows, all in pursuit of a haircut. He receives visitors, and is given to distraction (especially of the coital variety), but Packer mostly stays in his limo, sequestered from the world and its quotidian barbarities. Pallid and laconic, with that pretty, stoical face, Pattinson has the slick style of a manicured model and the impermeable air of a potentate. (The glassy limo ensphering him isn’t so different from the Popemobile, as Packer slowly prowls the city, touring the riot scene.)

Cronenberg has always had a preternatural knack for casting: consider motor-mouthed James Woods as the garrulous head of a sordid TV network, or sadly beautiful Jeff Goldblum, with his idiosyncratic affectations and inflections, as a tragically brilliant scientist, or James Spader, subtly sleazy in a rarefied way, playing a film producer who, after surviving a car accident, develops a lubricious affinity for car crashes and mangled machinery. Here, Cronenberg uses the charisma (or lack thereof) of Pattinson, who, at this point, had yet to shake off the shackles of his brooding vampire persona, whose face still festooned t-shirts hung in Hot Topics and adorned the walls of so many freshmen dormitories. With that quiff, which would make Morrissey jealous, and lips the color of wine set against a ghastly-gorgeous pallor, Pattinson was a verifiable heartthrob trying to garner more serious roles. Cosmopolis came out the same year as the final Twilight film, and the performance, chilly and detached, was misunderstood by some moviegoers, and did little to convince detractors that Pattinson could actually act. But Cosmopolis now looks in retrospect like a bold and brilliant career move for the actor. It was the first in a series of challenging, serious films that Pattinson would appear in, and showed that he had genuine ambitions, as well as a deft ability to pick great directors to work with. Pattinson brings to the role of the bored and vacuous billionaire a profound nothingness, which is to say, his underacting, his droll delivery of lines, emphasizes that Packer barely qualifies as a human, as a character. He is an idea manifest as a man-shaped entity, sedent and symbolic.  

DeLillo’s pseudo-surrealist book befuddled critics in 2003, who bemoaned its stilted dialogue, what John Updike called “lobotomized,” as well as the languous pacing. As the follow-up to Underworld, DeLillo’s 1998 gargantuan exegesis on the second half of the 20th century, a sprawling, sinuous, erudite vivisection of American culture (the act of watching a baseball game becomes, in DeLillo’s exacting prose, an ontological experience), Cosmopolis seemed paltry, less ambitious. How, after all, does one follow up an opus? But in recent years, it has acquired a reputation for prescience, like pretty much all of DeLillo’s works. “He speaks in your voice, American,” begins Underworld, “and there’s a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.” In Cosmopolis, Packer muses, “There are dead stars that still shine because their light is trapped in time. Where do I stand in this light, which does not strictly exist?” Packer speaks in a quintessentially American voice, learned, bored, his elocution and eloquence insinuating a dexterity for critical thinking (if not exactly a capacity for empathy) while hinting at a familiar kind of melancholy, the articulate depressive who is, despite his ostensible advantages, still profoundly unhappy. Packer shares two obsessions with Cronenberg: the corporeal body and technology—and, more importantly, how the two affect each other. The relationship between technology and capital, Packer opines, is the only thing worth thinking about, and he remains throughout the novel concerned about his “asymmetrical prostate,” receiving daily visits from a doctor because of this malady. Packer is also beholden to his insatiable carnal needs, seeking in the flesh of women some semblance of reprieve from his unremitting, inexplicable sadness. Cronenberg, who has been exploring the relationship between technology and the human body his entire career, turns Packer into a modern day Icarus, hurtling in his limo towards that great, emblazoned orb. He’s reaped the benefits of a technology-based capitalist economy, proffered and prospered while others are crushed by the system. He’s become so numb to the world he ends up shooting himself in the hand just to feel something.  

It took Cronenberg five years to get funding for Maps to the Stars, his scathing, scurrilous satire about the circle-jerk of Hollywood. In it, he portrays Tinsel Town as an accretion of stars and starfuckers—all those Janus-faced beauties and starlets, money-hungry charlatans, glassy-eyed hopefuls with glamorous aspirations, a miscellany of maladaptives and murderers. Cronenberg’s idea of Los Angeles is a shimmering, sprawling wasteland pervaded by ghosts and histories which are best left unexhumed. Written by Bruce Wagner, the film concerns a miscellany of insalubrious characters whose lives, their “arcs” you might say, are interwoven in horrific ways. An enigmatic, laconic young girl named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), waif-like and mottled with burns, arrives to Hollywood, her eyes agleam with unuttered ambitions. She becomes the personal assistant (the “chore-whore”) to the fading star Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is haunted by the mocking apparition of her dead mother, a certifiable star who, rather than burning out, burned alive in a freak fire years ago. Havana is campaigning for the role made famous by her mother in a new remake of the elder Segrand’s swansong film. Maps to the Stars is permeated by decrepit family histories; Agatha has a brother, a bratty child actor named Benjie (Evan Bird), on the mend after an early stint in rehab, and an exploitative TV psychologist for a father (John Cusack, at his most deplorable). In a bit of clever casting, Pattinson, having played the bored billionaire riding around in the back of the limo in Cronenberg’s previous film, here plays a limo driver who is, it seems, destined to remain in the doldrums. Everyone save for Pattinson’s penurious limo driver is odious. When an executive says giving Benjie $300,000 a week when he was only nine was perhaps a bad idea—”That kind of income would fuck up Mother Theresa,” he quips—Benjie replies, “She’s already fucked, she’s dead, that's how fucked up she is.” Then again, to Benjie and his insufferable gaggle of rich teenage friends, anyone over 20 is basically dead.

Maps to the Stars is, like all of Cronenberg’s films, at once edified and infantile. Characters recite Paul Elard’s poem “Liberte,” famous for being airdropped en masse on war-torn Paris, and the incestuous subplots hark back to Sophoclean tragedies. It may be the most vitriolic depiction of Hollywood since Michael Sarne’s ill-fated adaptation of Myra Breckinridge in 1970, and brings to mind Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which a hack writer named Joe loses his wheels (which, Thom Andersen points out in Los Angeles Plays Itself, is tantamount to castration in the concrete jungle of L.A.), and finds himself a prisoner of sorts to an eccentric, mercurial former silent star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Like Wilder, Cronenberg conjures a satiric iteration of Hollywood as a place permeated by death and decay, by so many ghosts. Like Norma Desmond, Moore’s Havanna is still plenty pretty at 50, but her mental state has eroded, as has her career. But Sunset Boulevard is, for all its sardonic wit, and its unwavering denigration of Hollywood’s vainglory and cruelty, essentially a tragedy, narrated by a dead man, about a woman who is a ghost of her former self. Norma, in the wake of her stardom, reigns over a carrion kingdom, a dilapidated house, forlorn and forgotten, which resembles a luxurious tomb; she is accompanied by her dauntlessly loyal servant (Erich von Stroheim) and cloying memories of a bygone epoch. Here, amid the relics and curios, she luxuriates in the residuum of the past, watching old films in which she starred, throws dinner parties which no one attends, and slits her wrists in Sisyphean desperation. If comedy is tragedy plus time, then for Cronenberg and Wagner, Hollywood is innately farcical, the sadness of all those its devours or destroys rendered comical because it seems never-ending. One of the complaints lodged against Maps to the Stars is that it’s all too familiar, that other films have lampooned the vulgar adolescent brat, the navel-gazing aging actress, the charlatan self-help sage. But, in a way, that’s what makes Hollywood such a riotous (though not exactly funny) realm—it never changes. 

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