Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up: David Cronenberg's “Maps to the Stars.”
The director: David Cronenberg (Canadian, 71 years old). I don't think I exactly need to introduce Cronenberg, unless your auteur radar extends only to directors who have been nominated for Oscars. The cinema's currently dormant king of body horror has shifted in and out of genres and levels of respectability, his previous 20 features taking him from shoestring kink (“Stereo”) to more elaborate gross-out cult items (“Videodrome”) to warped mainstream fare (“The Fly”) to icy arthouse provocations (“Crash”) to tastefully cerebral prestige items (“A Dangerous Method”), with any number of stages in between. Certainly not underrated in critical terms, his mutable style and status is probably what has led to him being under-rewarded on both the festival and awards circuit; now an elder statesman, he retains a rebellious air.
The talent: Cronenberg's last feature, “Cosmopolis,” featured his glitziest ensemble to date, and the aptly titled “Maps to the Stars” is very much in the same vein — beginning with the return of the former film's leading man, Robert Pattinson. Also on board: Julianne Moore (who feels like she should have worked with Cronenberg several times already), Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Carrie Fisher and Olivia Williams. Also, the somewhat alien Canadian beauty Sarah Gadon turns up in her third consecutive Cronenberg film, sealing her reputation as his new muse.
Screenwriter and author Bruce Wagner adapted his own novel of the same title: noted for his acerbic brand of industry satire, his previous credits include “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” and Tracey Ullman's “State of the Union” TV series. Below the line, it's business as usual, with Cronenberg's devoted cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore and costume designer (and sister) Denise Cronenberg back once more. Production designer Carol Spier has sat out the last couple of Cronenberg films — working on such films as “Pacific Rim” in the interim — but returns for this one.
The pitch: Given his love of the decayed and the depraved, it's kind of surprising that Cronenberg hasn't done a Hollywood-set feature before — Cronenberg has described this absurdist celebrity saga as “the condensed essence” of its screenwriter, though he claims it's “not a satire like 'The Player,'” claiming more emotional power than most showbiz romps.
The story centers on the dysfunctional Weiss family, headed by psychotherapist-to-the-stars Stafford (Cusack); his wife Cristina (Williams) manages the career of their drug-addicted teen-star son Benji (Evan Bird), while their daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a pyromaniac fresh from the mental asylum, who hooks up with limo driver and wannabe actor Jerome (Pattinson). Meanwhile, Stafford's actress client Havana (Moore) is haunted by the ghost of her mother (Gadon), as she plans a remake of the dead woman's star-making film. (That makes this the second Competition title, after “Clouds of Sils Maria,” in which an actressy remake is an active plot point.) Sounds like ripe material that could go wildly out of control — which is pretty much where we want Cronenberg to take it.
The prestige: Cronenberg's reputation precedes him, obviously, though he hasn't quite received his due at Cannes: following “Crash,” “Spider,” “A History of Violence” and “Cosmopolis,” “Maps to the Stars” is his fifth film to premiere in Competition at the festival — though only “Crash” has been rewarded, taking the Special Jury Prize in 1996.
The buzz: The film has already been selectively press-screened, though responses have been understandably tight-lipped. If expectations are tempered, it's partly because “Cosmopolis” — a similarly shiny project based on out-there material that seemed similarly tailored to the director's sensibility — cooled pretty quickly after some initially feverish responses at the 2012 fest. Given the excesses of the material, “Maps to the Stars” evidently needs to be a bit unruly to work, but it could also just be a mess.
The odds: Few would disagree that Cronenberg is due a major Cannes prize at this point in his career, but that still depends on the film landing right — it was the same story two years ago, but “Cosmopolis” was too chilly and contained to earn any love from Nanni Moretti's jury. Jigsaw Lounge places him among the frontrunners for the Palme d'Or, with odds of 13-2, but I'm not sure if Jane Campion's jury will be inclined toward something this glossy and gonzo. Wagner could be one to watch for Best Screenplay honors.
Next in Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up “Two Days, One Night,” the latest from two-time Palme d'Or winners the Dardenne Brothers.