Paul Éluard’s Poem “Liberty” Is the Unseen Star of ‘Maps to the Stars’

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Spoiler alert: this post contains vague references to occurrences at the end of Maps to the Stars.

Maps to the Stars begins in a mode of straightforward, Hollywood-brutalizing satire. We’re introduced, via Cronenberg’s bloodlessly still lens, to the players in the tritest of Hollywood nightmares. Each character reflects a Hollywood type so dominant as to seem, when rendered fictionally, hugely self-evident. There’s the entitled, Bieber-y tweenage delinquent whose body, from a young age, has been smothered in massage oils and embalmed with mental-health medication, rendering him a soulless, Bad Babysitter-franchise-starring monster who calls 20-something actors “menopausal” and who fears his fame being usurped by a younger (literally infantile) actor. There’s Julianne Moore’s fading actress who, subjugated by Hollywood’s cruel notions of obsolescence, is seeking reinvention through threesomes, questionable roles, and screaming her way through diluted yogic attempts at accessing inner peace. There’s the pickled, makeup-masked, cigarette-voiced talent agent. There’s John Cusack’s filthy self-help guru. There’s Mia Wasikowska’s glamor-less, falsely subservient assistant with ulterior motives. (Her introduction to Moore’s character by Carrie Fisher, amusingly, catalyzes something akin to star wars.) If you needed a reminder that Hollywood is a black hole that absorbs souls and spits out “stars,” here it is… again.

Yet while the film begins with this map of hackneyed Hollywood realities, each soon takes a turn for the Cronenbergian. On-the-nose satire leaps, with relentless psychosexual absurdity, from the nose to the genitals, then eventually to some darker, unmapped realm of humanity. The film spirals from dark comedy to an amalgam of the most hideous of Greek tragedies, replete with incest, familial apparitions, self-immolations, and a classic murder-via-bashing-by-Oscar-like-trophy. The vehicle for the film’s hellish plunge, oddly, is a poem, “Liberty,” by Paul Éluard — one of the founders of surrealism.

We know immediately that Cronenberg has ceased any attempt at making a literal Hollywood satire when this obscure (to the vacuous non-people Cronenberg suggests industry insiders become, if not those familiar with French WWII literature) poem begins infiltrating the lives of the characters. It seemingly goads each of their acts of madness in a way that can’t be seen as exactly parallel to anything insidiously Hollywood-y: no one could come away from the film thinking, “It’s so true, the heavy presence of politically charged French surrealist poetry in Hollywood life is really poisoning the industry.” Rather, it’s in this sudden unrealistic pairing of hyper-critical Hollywood exaggeration and ghostly, poetic otherworldliness that Maps to the Stars becomes intriguing.

Given the poem’s imposition on and derailment of the more straightforwardly satirical form, and its frequent recurrence in the film, its presence deserves parsing. The 21-stanza poem, when first written, was actually far from obscure — and that’s because it was disseminated by parachute over Nazi-occupied Paris by the Royal Air Force in 1942. The poem was a uniquely blatant ode to the very thing that would become absent in French life under Nazi rule: Liberty. With its ceaseless repetition, it was so crushingly and emblematically obstinate about the necessity (and sudden disappearance) of liberty that it was given a colossal choral rendering in 1944 by Francis Poulenc:

Just as Maps to the Stars sets up a dizzying duality of lowbrow Hollywood satiric smut (emulating, with its clinically empty stylization, the cipher-like beings it posits actors become) and a highbrow symbolic puzzle, the poem’s implications are likewise split along these lines in the film. By placing its words in the hands of characters whose lives are evacuated of meaning by a culture of celebrity worship, the poem’s politicized nature is uprooted and reframed to represent the world’s relationship to the famous, and celebrities’ narcissistic relationships to themselves.

Without knowing the poem’s background, when we hear characters reciting lines like “On my school notebooks/ On my desk and trees/ On the sand and snow/ I write your name,” the “name” in question doesn’t seem like “Liberty.” “Liberty” is the name revealed at the end of the poem, but here you’re rather reminded of the way you might have written “Leonardo DiCaprio” in bubbly, gel-penned letters as a kid, or of the general ubiquity of celebrity culture in our every quotidian act. Watching Mia Wasikowska recite the poem as she squats over and rubs a Hollywood walk-of-fame star, you expect the “name” in question to be that of, say, Julianne Moore’s character, Havana Segrand.

In the stanza, “On the flesh that says yes/ on the foreheads of all my friends/ I write your name,” recited by both Wasikowska’s obsessive Agatha and Segrand’s character’s sexually abusive mother, the notion of the worship of celebrity becomes more sinister. It here evokes etchings of celebrity names — falsely personal signifiers applied to otherwise objectified bodies — in human flesh. As the film thoroughly explores, celebrity worship is an often collaborative matter between audiences and celebrities, with audiences entering purely voyeuristic relationships with celebrity bodies, and celebrities fulfilling the well-paid duty of turning their own bodies into fodder for this voyeurism.

With the notion of the poem’s origins, and those origins’ absence from the world of this film, Cronenberg asserts Hollywood’s counterintuitive distance from the “real world.” As an industry rooted in the act of storytelling — and often “true story” telling — the expectation is that, for qualitative purposes, it would be more engaged with non-Hollywood realities. But as is seen with this poem, Hollywood’s self-important exploration of history and “big issues” often dilutes, revises, or totally erases them. The initial bastardization of the weighty meaning of this poem also parallels other instances, in the film, where cushioned Hollywood-dwellers’ interpretations of other realities is highly askew. Constantly, the film juxtaposes its idea of petty Hollywood self-involvement with larger tragedies: when Havana Segrand gets a part due to the death of a child, she dances around her house. Throughout the film, we see the ways mental illness is shuttered in order to maintain role-model status and an air of Hollywood-accepted serenity.

Then the movie twists. The repressive horrors of Hollywood lead the characters to acts of insanity, violence, sex, and self-harm that storm through the narrow walls of health- and relaxation-obsessed Hollywood culture; that’s when the poem strangely regains its true meaning. As the characters destroy each other (or themselves), both the poem is liberated from film’s initial, revisionist meaning and the characters are liberated from the falsely immortalizing promises of Hollywood.

The poem becomes a mantra, of sorts, for Mia Wasikowska’s schizophrenic character and her destruction of the foundations of Hollywood lies — herself being one of them. Though this of course suggests a thematic parallel being drawn between Hollywood and Nazism, the film never broaches the actual poem’s history, so this highly extreme comparison is thankfully a mere insinuation. In a movie so cynical as to see Hollywood pawns burning, choking, and bludgeoning each other, the poem’s suggested realignment with its historical meaning is actually Cronenberg’s most scathing of attacks. Finally, when “By the power of the word/ I regain my life/ I was born to know you/ And to name you/ LIBERTY” is recited before a suicide, “liberty,” the film urges, has been found.