“After we’ve wept, after we’ve suffered. After we’ve exhausted the fountain of memory, bloodied our hands at the walls of our parents’ house.”
A strange symmetry can be traced throughout David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas, both released 2014. There are a myriad of uncanny similarities that relate the films to each other; in many ways they could be read as the other’s foil. Above all though, both films at their centre depict an (apparently) ageing actress confronting and being encouraged to embrace the loss of her youth by transitioning into more ‘age appropriate’ roles.
In Maps to the Stars, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), is the daughter of Hollywood legend Clarice Taggart, hoping to revive her career by playing her own mother. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a similarly maturing actor who is set to revisit her debut role, but this time playing the older counterpart to her 18-year-old self. For Havana the role is a lifeline, feeling discarded by the film industry, she must call on her birthright to Hollywood stardom and reinsert herself into relevance. Maria, however, is reluctant to play the less interesting and tragic other half to her younger-self’s breakthrough, and must be compelled to play the role. For both women the roles are posited as career-defining; they are the roles they were born to play. This mantra of the women’s destiny to play these parts is a damningly sexist one. Placing the films side by side, having them appear two halves of the same coin, I notice that there appears to be an inherent damnation in the shoe-horning of both women into what the industry deems appropriate maturity. The roles now deemed suitable for Maria and Havana have allure only due to their personal, historical relation to them. In order for the women to remain relevant, or indeed to land parts and continue to work, they must inject their personal histories into their work. Both films suggest that, as actresses age, they forfeit an artistic distance from themselves and the work. I link this bending of agency with popular forms of writing on the internet that found its height when Maps to the Stars and Clouds of Sils Maria were released.
In 2014, the internet was vastly populated with articles journalist Laura Bennett has called the ‘first-person industrial complex’. Such articles, necessarily written in the first-person, detailed personal, often traumatic stories. They were also almost unanimously written by women. Jia Tolentino has written on the personal essay for The New Yorker:
“Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory,”
Men’s exploratory writing had for a long time been accepted in its portrayal of the objective; their perceived view of the world going uncriticised. Indeed as early as 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote disparagingly on the male, objective ‘I’ in A Room of One’s Own:
“It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. […] this ‘I’ was a most respectable ‘I’; honest and logical; as hard as a nut and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeding.”
For Woolf, men’s dominance over the letter ‘I’ is an indication of their subjectivity being taken as law; their description of the world going unquestioned as the natural truth of things. It is this patriarchal dominance over the description of things that then prompts women, around a century later, to reclaim the ‘I’ for their own ends. Unable to have their description of the world to be taken unquestioned, to hypothesise and be believed with immediacy as men had been, women’s writing found worth in personal histories that could not be denied. For Bennett, although the rise in the first-person personal essay provided women a way to break through and have their work published, it simultaneously created “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”
It is no accident that both Maps to the Stars and Clouds of Sils Maria were released at the height of the personal essay’s prominence. Both Havana and Maria prepare for roles they believe, or are encouraged to believe, will be career-defining as they were ‘made for them’. The roles have personal relevance for them; Maria is to begrudgingly play against her former self and Havana to play her own mother. Both women are encouraged, like authors of the personal essay, to mine their personal lives in order that they stay relevant. Although Maria and Havana do not seek to inject their personal histories into the work with quite the vim of the personal essay, their worth as actors begins to bubble down without and needs to be reignited by factors outside the work itself. Both films suggest that, as an actress ages, there needs to be real-life scandal or intrigue to prop up interest around her work, and thus to get the work. The first-person personal essay is a contemporary mode of breaking into publishing, a burden of the ‘up-and-coming’, and therefore the burden of younger writers. Women are taught to seek artistic potential in their personal trauma then from a young age. Despite being older, and working in a different context to the authors of the personal essay, Maria and Havana both conform to this behaviour of repackaging trauma as ‘content’. For Tolentino and Bennett, the first-person industrial complex is an affliction necessarily tied to millennial women. However, Clouds of Sils Maria and Maps to the Stars suggest that this coaching of women to scavenge for trauma in their personal histories is a lesson already inscribed in the timeline of women’s lives. Indeed, Havana and Maria have ‘broken through’, acclaimed in their fields they are where the authors of the personal essay long to be. And still, even as established artists, their work finds worth in its proximity to the personal and scandalising.
Bennett’s description of the articles frequently exposing and narrativising “the worst thing that ever happened [to the author]” is something I find echoes of particularly in Havana’s experience. Havana was abused both sexually and physically at the hands of her mother as a young child and has spent much of her career in her mother’s shadow being forced to compete with and publicly play tribute to her abuser. An additionally troubling element in this dichotomy is that Havana has already historically gone public with her story of abuse. Her appointment to the role of her abusive mother’s ghost therefore goes beyond a personal journey of Oedipal catharsis and into more sinister realms; there is money to be made watching a woman enacting her confused trauma. A television set in Havana’s kitchen goes unwatched as the screen blares her own face. The Havana on the television is on a talk-show, discussing her upcoming role. The personal significance of her playing Clarice morphing into tantalising advertising: “I mean, we all hear we become our mothers but this is a bit extreme!” Havana’s televised presence repackages, sanitises, her trauma. It is in such moments that the film aligns itself most closely with the personal essay; this is beyond working through trauma it is trauma commercialised.
Cronenberg’s work is frequently interested in screens and how they mediate and prescribe reality. This is most evident in Videodrome (1983) where a television signal explicitly tries to corrupt brain waves and reconstruct the world it is exposed to. Elements of Videodrome’s sentient television presence can be found in Maps to the Stars. Havana decorates her home with her own on-screen presence, using her false media-self as an omen of hope. It is an effort to distil her own harrowing experience by having a voodoo doll of herself profess her excitement at revisiting old wounds.
In a desperate conversation with her agent about securing the role, Havana seems to paraphrase Bennett: “Everything I am doing, everything in my life and in my therapy, is to get this role.” Havana is undergoing intense therapy, confronting her traumatised childhood-self, in order to win the role of Clarice. The first we see of Havana is a close-up of her back, she is wearing red laced underwear and her arms are crossed and held behind her. We hear a man’s voice: “Don’t Mamma.” Followed by Havana’s shaking echo “Don’t Mamma.” Her therapist continues to feed Havana more lines to repeat, illustrating her abusive childhood. In each line his voice is calm and assertive, whilst she struggles to get whole words out without stuttering. Therapist: “I wish they’d killed you Mamma, I’d kill you myself.” Havana: “I was a little girl and you hurt me.” She falters and is prompted to continue, “Stop forgiving, Havana!”
It is difficult to be introduced to our protagonist in this, the most intimate of moments. Havana arrives on our screens in distress, as a victim and childlike, and she will remain this way, in extended vulnerability, throughout the film. What is particularly troubling, beyond Havana’s self-flagellation and emotional torture to procure the role, is that so much of this experience is necessitated through others. The therapist mediates Havana’s endeavour to reclaim her childhood from her mother, she mouths back words that have been summoned for her to say. The therapy intends to reinstate Havana’s silenced and frightened childhood self with a voice however, it appears false/hollow/troubling when lines are being fed to her and demanded from her. Indeed, the exercise does not seem to work beyond summoning Clarice’s ghost who further torments Havana. Following from this scene, Havana’s life and career continue to be mediated by men at every turn. She jokes with a member of production that an actress is famed for letting directors “put their cocks in her ass and piss”, but moments later finds herself in bed with the same man and another woman, performing and feigning bisexuality (“I guess I’m a lousy dyke”). Cronenberg is adamant that we question who this mental exorcism is for and how it can be necessary.
Where Havana is jumping through any hoop put in front of her, no matter how scalding, to secure the role of Clarice, Maria must be coerced into her part. In the fictional play, Maloja Snake (named after a cloud pattern in the mountains of Sils Maria in Switzerland), Sigrid is a cruel and beautiful eighteen-year-old who ensnares the tragic Helena leading her to eventually commit suicide. Maria originally detests the idea of playing Helena, for her it would mark with finality her descent from intrigue and distinction. She must be forcibly compelled to see herself as Helena, through director Klaus’ deployment of the myth of a destined role. Maria protests; “If you’re telling me that I’m Helena’s age now you’re right, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean I can play her.” She rejects the role, abhorring Helena’s weakness, her willingness to be defeated; “This poor woman is ready to kill herself before the play even starts.” Indeed, in many ways Maria’s resistance to Helena is a struggle against the same destined dejectedness. Klaus insists that in playing Helena, Maria would not be turning her back on the role which made her, but completing it, actualising it:
“There’s no antagonism, it’s the attraction of two women with the same wound. Sigrid and Helena are one in the same person, one in the same person. That’s what the play’s about. And because you were Sigrid, only you can be Helena now.”
It is an alluring offer and, in painting the role as a fulfilment of artistic destiny, he clenches Maria. The myth of a reignition of youth in this revived role, suited just for her, cannot be refused. However, it is precisely Sigrid’s resistance of, and opposition to, ‘destiny’ which is responsible for her attraction. For Maria, “Sigrid is free beyond anything. Most of all she is destructive, unpredictable. And, right or wrong I have always identified with that freedom, it’s a way of protecting myself.” Maria hopes her near genetic relation to Sigrid will enable her to transcend Helena’s tragedy, that her lifelong resonance with Sigrid’s volatile freedom will permeate her performance. It is a dream that she has sold herself. Maria takes the role in hopes that it will offer her a return to freedom, but it is damned. Older roles for older actresses are not awarded such grandeur; the transition from Sigrid to Helena with age is not the famed graduation from Hamlet to King Lear afforded of male actors. Clouds of Sils Maria opens with Valentine (Kristen Stewart) and Maria on the train to Zurich discussing having Maria’s name removed from the IMDb account for an upcoming X-Men movie (“I’m sick of acting hanging from wires in front of green screens”). The classically trained Maria is enamoured with her craft, and sees herself as above superhero movies whilst somehow being defeated by them; she is desperate then from the film’s opening. Agreeing to take on the role of Helena is not a return to the freedom offered by Sigrid, but a bow to the constrictions of age and the necessity that her roles span beyond the work itself and into gossipy morsels of her personal life.
We know that Helena is cursed before we learn the play’s subject fully. One of the reasons Maria rejects the role is because of a superstitious fear in the memory of her Sigrid’s Helena, Susan Rosenberg. Maria confesses to Klaus that Rosenberg’s legacy makes her fear the part. “Susan Rosenberg, she played Helena with me. […] She died in a car accident a year after. It’s a superstition, I’ve always associated her death with Helena’s suicide.” In his response, Klaus misreads the insidiousness of this fear, the depths to which it reaches. “She was a lousy actress who did not understand the role. And her conventionalist style of acting highlighted the modernity of your performance. You should be grateful to her.” Indeed, here Klaus in a way seals Maria’s fate. This is precisely the curse of Helena; being exposed to the harshness of a youth which has passed. Later, reading lines with Valentine, Maria is once again horrified to apprehend Susan in the text, or rather, what the text did to Susan. “I have too many memories of Susan Rosenberg and how sick she made me feel when she was slipping into the skin of this defeated woman. She got such obscene pleasure out of this night after night.” Maria tries to navigate the character, to revive Helena with some semblance of freedom or at least attraction, but like the eerie cloud formation after which the play is named, Helena’s curse hangs over Maria.
Maps to the Stars and Clouds of Sils Maria are thematically bound in many ways beyond their leading ladies. For both films the pull of destiny or a curse looms large. Havana originally loses out on the role to another woman, Azita Wachtel. The two meet outside a boutique shop and excruciating conversation ensues. Havana proclaims “You know, for a heartbeat, I really wanted to do it. Isn’t that insane? […] but then I was like, work it out in therapy, bitch!” It is crushing. However, the film is seemingly visited by a deux ex machina; Azita’s son drowns, leaving her bereft and unable to go ahead with production. Maps to the Stars, with its ancient gods and real-life ghosts, has a glaring relationship to the supernatural and destiny. Indeed, after hearing that she will be replacing Azita, Havana begins a dance in praise of her drowned son across her patio. It is an immensely uncomfortable segment that leaves us convinced that there are forces in some way conniving to put Havana in the role.
Both Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria are sure that youth equals cruelty. Their protagonists’ failures are exacerbated by being surrounded by a youth which threatens to overtake them. Another of the films’ strange symmetries is in both protagonists’ strained, fraught and potentially homoerotic relationships with their young assistant. Havana’s Valentine is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young burn victim from Florida who, by some twist of fate, finds herself aide to Havana days after arriving in Hollywood. Havana seems driven mad by Agatha’s presence in her house, her youth reminding her of the other ghosts that lurk there. She is spurred in a wretched hatred against the girl and endeavours to demonstrate that her beauty, sullied only by age, triumphs over Agatha’s tainted youth. Havana seduces Agatha’s boyfriend Jerome (Robert Pattinson- Twilight, in fact, another kindred bow tying these two films together) as a stab at Agatha’s youth. In her conversation with Jerome, Havana’s motivations are clear. She sits in the backseat of his car and holds his gaze in the front mirror. Havana begins by asking if Jerome is with Agatha for fetishist purposes only and whether “the burn thing” is “creepy”, before asking if he prefers her skin. The focus on skin has clear roots in a paranoia around age. Havana goes onto ask “and my holes, are my holes better [than hers]?” this desperate plea to be found the superior beauty goes beyond Agatha. Upon her first confrontation with the ghost of her mother, Clarice sneered at Havana’s plans to play her:
“Isn’t it pathetic that you want to play me? You hate me, but yet you’re desperate to be me? You want that role but you’re not going to get it, you don’t even have the chops. I did, and I was young and gorgeous. You, and your shitty tits and your used-up old hole, stinks worse than me!”
The inside of her body, too, infested by the deranging process of ageing. Everything Havana does is motivated by this confused desire for fame and youth all wrapped up impossibly in the agonising ghosts of her past.
The cruelty of youth, its demand of attention, plagues Maria, she finds it explicitly within the script, unescapable. She calls the text “impossible”, frustrated that there is no way to inject compassion or autonomy into Helena, she proclaims “everything is weighted to make Sigrid look good.” Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) is cast as Maria’s Sigrid. She is extremely young and suddenly extremely famous, as a result of a public love-life and dramatic courtship of the press. When Maria eventually begins rehearsals, Jo-Ann’s reincarnation of Sigrid fulfils her every fear, hammering the nails into the coffin for Maria’s chance of reviving the spirit of Helena. The curtain, printed with the ghostly Malojas Snake, parts to reveal a stark reality. Maria, as Helena, sits off centre and the camera meanders across the stage following Jo-Ann. Assayas gives us the ending to a different film as Jo-Ann finally stops inches from the camera, a curtain falling behind her, the lights dropping with only a spotlight on her face. This is the first we have seen of the actual rendition of Maloja Snake and Maria is eclipsed. In the next scene a reporter sits across from Klaus; “Well, you can imagine my first question. Will the media frenzy around Jo-Ann Ellis steal the spotlight?” We do not need to hear his answer, it is clear that it already has. Indeed, Jo-Ann’s inclusion in the cast seemed destined to overshadow Maria before she was introduced. Klaus warned Maria that Jo-Ann was “much more interesting than her online interviews”; Jo-Ann being famed for anti-social, attention-seeking Hollywood exploits. This ‘interest’ seems potentially fashioned to create a frenzy; that is what Sigrid stands for in many ways. In Maria’s own words in praise of Sigrid have come back to haunt her, “most of all she is destructive, unpredictable”. In her media personality, Jo-Ann enacts exactly that which Maria desired in Sigrid, whilst whipping it from under her.
The scene cuts from Klaus’ discussion with the reporter to the cast on set after the rehearsal. Maria comes to Jo-Ann with suggestions that she revises a moment from the play: “You leave without looking at me, as if I didn’t exist. Umm, ah, if you could pause for a second? Helena’s distress would last longer when she is left alone in her office. Well, the way you’re playing it, umm, the audience follows you out, but instantly forgets about her so…”
She is falling over her words, her face strained. Midway through the film, after agreeing to play Helena, the hair that previously lapped around Maria’s face is cut short. This cosmetic change ages her, placing her more firmly within the character. Her individual glamour chopped away; now, it is slicked down and making her look smaller. She looks like she is begging before she utters the words. Laughter creeps across Jo-Ann’s mouth as she responds: “So… So, what? […] Well, no one really gives a fuck about Helena at that point, do they? I’m sorry, but it’s pretty clear to me this poor woman is all washed up. I mean your character, right, not you.”
Each time Maria speaks, imploring Jo-Ann “if you just held it… a few seconds longer”, the camera jumps closer to her breaking face. Jo-Ann’s insistence that no one cares, that their attention isn’t and hasn’t been with Helena, is met with the same distanced camera throughout. The cruelty of her youth is impenetrable. Maria caves, the text is “impossible” and she no longer has the energy to battle for this character she had no hope for from the beginning. The camera draws us closer to her as she slowly shakes her head with recognition. She lifts her eyes to the ceiling in bittersweet revelation. “I think I’m lost in my memories. You think you’ve forgotten your old habits, but they’re all… They all come back.” However, even this moment is clasped from her before she is given the space to be taken seriously. The shot changes to Jo-Ann all too soon, her eyes incredulously wide and the laughter back on her lips as she beholds Maria as some sort of rambling batty old woman. In the end Jo-Ann, and Sigrid, dictate the play’s meaning. Some things cannot be worked out through art, sometimes your places are set and no amount of talent is rewriting that. “I mean, it’s time to move on. I think they want what comes next.” This has always been the truth. It is how the play, and indeed we are told the industry is set up. Klaus himself in praise of Maria’s first rendition of the play cursed Maria with this sentiment. That the “conventionality” of the actress who plays Helena works only to flatter Sigrid’s “modernity.”
Both of the films’ locales, though ostensibly beautiful, become rinsed and dull as the films progress. Assayas demonstrates the hollowness of the ‘classy’. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Valentine excuses herself after an awards ceremony in a glitzy Zurich hotel declaring it a “deadzone”, in a bright and formal room Jo-Ann whispers to her boyfriend throughout a symphony. Similarly, in Maps to the Stars the heights of fame do not seem that high. At an A-list party, a group of famous teenagers spy Havana and giggle to each other that she is “beyond menopausal”. Both Havana and Maria are highly feminine. Maria wears shockingly high heels to accept her award at the film’s beginning, she appears to enjoy her femininity and flouting age in glamour. Similarly, Havana wears large hoop earrings even when practicing yoga. Neither women seem to personally find their age an aesthetic issue, they embrace and enjoy their beauty. They do not look the “washed-up” actresses we are told they are and, in many ways, both in their careers and the physicality they have adhered to the femininity and glamour that is expected of them. However, now at these perspective heights they are met with an emptiness. Significantly, both films seem to respect their leading ladies, resisting sympathy but casting an honest and unhopeful gaze on the prospects of older stars. However, their portrayal of ageing as a woman is undoubtedly a damning one. They say, it does not matter if you are a respected, classically trained actor or if you are a washed-up Hollywood baby; once you are no longer shiny we do not have a place for you beside one of vague and distasteful interest in a sad sort of old animal.
In neither film do we receive the eventual performances of these cursed and destined parts. We are never shown how Maria fairs as Helena, after painstakingly combing over the script with Valentine we do not see her utter a single line onstage. However, the media storm surrounding Jo-Ann, her distinct grounding in modernity up against Maria’s conventionality, pre-empts Maria’s eclipse. Youth as cruelty finds a more literal expression in Maps to the Stars as Havana is battered to death by Agatha moments after finally securing the role. We never even get to see her read her lines and the film carries on without further mention of her. Perhaps, in a way, Cronenberg is sparing her thus from continued impossible torment. Both films vehemently push their leading ladies into their ‘destined’ roles, whilst simultaneously conniving against their success in them. Maria and Havana are made to churn up uncomfortable memories, expose their pasts and their hearts to even land the roles that were apparently ‘made for them’. They are convinced that their art will only accrue worth once it is attached to them unequivocally, but it is a trap as they find themselves plagued by ghosts of themselves or their abusers. Maps to the Stars and Clouds of Sils Maria urge us to take sides with their protagonists, and seem to want them to succeed, but cannot find a way to let this happen. For me, the films are conjoined twins, their characters mirroring and amplifying each other’s struggles and creating a universality in their depiction of an ageing which is fraught and drenched in failure.
by Joanna Mason
Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 22 and is studying in Glasgow, Scotland. Some of her favourite films are Lost Highway, Withnail and I, Frances Ha and Videodrome.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism
This is one of the most detailed, beautifully written essays I have come across. Thank you for sharing your probing and analytical views on the spectre of ageing with this essay.
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Thank you so much, that’s so nice to read!
Thanks so much for writing this! Really enjoyed Maps To The Stars.