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David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars" At Cannes: The Transmission of Family Trauma?

May 19, 2014 | Updated Jul 19, 2014

I was lucky to be sitting next to psychoanalyst Isaac Tylim, affiliated with NYU's post-doctoral psychotherapy department, during the premiere of David Cronenberg's Maps of the Stars, as he helped me to get a handle on this strange (yet compelling) film.

"It's about the transmission of trauma through generations," the vibrant Argentinean opined. "And how it begs to be redeemed."

The story takes place in Hollywood: a bizarre young burn-scarred woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) shows up, enamored, it seems, by the starry ambiance of it all. We then have a parallel story of a famous actress, "Havana" (played by Julianne Moore), a borderline hysteric traumatized by her childhood, especially her mother, also a famous actress, who abused her. The mother, now dead, shows up as a ghost in a bathtub (a beautiful young one to boot) to cruelly haunt her daughter who is auditioning to play this parent in a new film. Desperate for relief, Havana turns to her new-age guru-psychiatrist (John Cusack) to exorcise this evil ghost, along with her considerable ego wounds. In the meantime, we are introduced to the family of this psychiatrist, a man whose own family seems a bit nutty, an entourage which includes a young child star (played archly by Evan Bird) who has just gone through a drug detox program (not entirely successfully), and a daughter sent to an institution for attempted murder.

At first, the film seems like a comic critique of the superficiality of Hollywood, the mad egotism and empty souls that abound--a superficiality that at times gets tiresome. Much of the dialogue is about needing to be famous, make money, compete with other stars, be young. Even adolescent actors have imbibed this catty Hollywood spirit as they sit on a couch at a party and rag on passing guests ("menopausal-aged actresses"). There are also a lot of potshots at the new age movement: Havana pops Xanax and Percocet at the same time that she sits, lotus position, with a "zen" cup of tea.

But then we have the ghosts who appear sporadically to haunt the characters, not only the winsome blonde mother phantom, always wearing a white slip of a dress, but the ghosts of recently deceased children. As for the starry eyed girl who began the film: she turns out to be not who she appears to be at all. We learn that there is a dark past lurking behind her--and indeed behind every one of the aforementioned characters.

But what is going on? The chillingly modern wealthy Hollywood homes, the caustic American wit, the intriguingly inexplicable ghosts (some who read poetry), and the luminous frames of the (sometimes) jarring shots keep us alert and curious. The suspense: wondering how all these dark angles--the ghosts and the burn marks -- are going to connect with the satire on Hollywood.

The "transmission of trauma" theory may be the answer--that is, if there is one.

I awaited David Cronenberg's own comments on "trauma" at the press conference.

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But there were none. The questions focused on Hollywood: whether Julianne Moore had had similar horror stories in the business, what Cronenberg thought of his own experience in the industry, and what Robert Pattinson (who plays a chauffeur) felt about his experience having sex in a car with one of the leads.

Midway during the conference, Cronenberg interjected: "My movie is not only about the movie business. I could have set it in any place where people are desperate, greedy. Wall Street, for example. It is not only about Hollywood. To say so would be shortchanging the movie."

I would have liked him to speak about those ghosts.