ery few performers nail neurosis like Julianne Moore. Between her stupefying embodiment of a woman on the brink in Todd Haynes’ magnificent Safe (1995), tightly-wound turns in a sprawling pair of PT Andersons (Boogie Nights, 1997; Magnolia, 1999), the contemptible social climber of Tom Kalin’s brutal Savage Grace (2007), a nuanced re-embodiment of Margaret White via 2013’s deft revision of Carrie, and her anguished, Oscar-bagging portrait of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice (2014), Moore has unmistakably cornered the market in playing complicated women on the knife-edge of existence.
Havana Segrand is no exception. As the throbbing pulse of David Cronenberg’s abrasive, barbed-tongued poison pen to Hollywoodland, Maps to the Stars (2014), the character feels equal parts an explosive culmination of Moore’s work up to that moment and a scathing commentary on the foul treatment of females in the film industry; a business that has thrived for over a century on the chewing-up-and-spitting-out of its lady artistes. It is here that the spectre of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder’s own lament to the inequities of the movie world, hovers palpably above Cronenberg’s creation, with that picture’s formidable key figure—the iconic Norma Desmond—ferociously repurposed in the form of Segrand: a middle-aged, sociopathic ex-starlet, tortured by the indignity of a dead career and the virulent self-disdain she carries on her shoulders, living (in the shadow of her deceased actress mom) from one hook-up, one therapy session, one martini, one Xanax to the next.
Christ, those therapy sessions. Led by a sleazeball celebrity shrink (John Cusack, hollow-gazed and whispery-voiced) whose methods could at best be described as unorthodox, these excruciating spells exhibit the sort of ugly, soul-bearing plunge into the catacombs of childhood trauma that one can envisage genuine casualties of mother-daughter toxicity—Liza Minelli, Christina Crawford, Drew Barrymore, et al.—being subjected to at some stage or another. This version of Segrand is worthy of our compassion, as glimpses of Havana the frightened little girl—pining for maternal protection that never comes—flash despairingly through the glisten of Moore’s crocodile-green eyes, the insinuation of incestuous abuse scrawled harrowingly across her glacial, contorted visage. That she finds herself bedevilled by hallucinations of a youthful ghost-avatar of her mother, and, what’s more, that she insists on chasing a lead part in the upcoming ‘reimagining’ of a cult film made famous by mommie dearest (too much like “stunt casting”, she’s told), just injects further torrents of pathos into this Tinseltown tragedy.
Then, of course, there is the other Segrand: the cruel, self-absorbed narcissist who cajoles her limo driver into screwing her (on the backseat, no less) purely to spite her ambitious eighteen-year-old P.A./“chore whore” (Mia Wasikowska, haunted by abysmal demons of her own), who dared to confide in her boss that she’s been dating the pretty-boy chauffeur. It’s about as cold-blooded and petty a manoeuvre one could imagine from a grown woman in her fifties, but then, that’s Havana all over: bitter, infantile, manipulative; a cyclone of petulance and egocentricity, capable of doing good but choosing instead—the wretched upshot of a lifetime’s worth of physical and emotional molestation—to be the biggest Bitch she can possibly be.
For all its brazen operatics, there remains a bleak superficiality to Maps that prevents it from burrowing into the true depths of mental purgatory the way that some viewers may feel it ought to—but I would wager this is precisely the point, its sharpened satire directed more squarely toward the surface-level vulgarity of La La Land than to allusions of psychological candour. Cronenberg’s Hollywood is a place to be feared: a forlorn, volatile nightmarescape barren of clemency and verve. The creatures there are smug, vindictive, and dishonest; they are free of rectitude and, frankly, deserving of nothing but the misfortunate cards they have been dealt.
The incandescent Ms. Moore, though, warrants every last crumb of praise I can yield. Whether pestering her long-suffering agent about that coveted film part (“This role was made for Best Supporting! It’s a fucking second chance!”), indulging in a spot of girl-on-girl foreplay during a midnight ménage à trois, tittle-tattling on a sidewalk with Carrie Fisher, or sat breaking wind—spread-legged and shameless—on a toilet, she devours Segrand with the greedy, venom-spitting resolve of a starving cobra. Hell, on the contrary, it might just be Segrand who devours Moore.