It's clear long before Maps to the Stars reaches its conclusion that whatever it finds there is going to be unfulfilling. The film thrives far too much on a shaggy, wandering tone of mystified bitterness that flares up regularly into hilarious, but pitch black comedy; it finds interesting and unexpected echoes and overlaps between scenes, some of them adjacent, some of them separated by half the movie, but its most distinctive strengths are exactly those which come about because of its momentum-free shuffling of tones, perspectives, and plot elements, and which exist in the particular absence of a clear narrative drive. It is the sort of movie which plainly announces, by the midway point, that it's going to roll to a stop somewhere, rather than build to a pointed conclusion.

So if that's the sort of thing that sounds horrible to you, it's absolutely the case that Maps to the Stars will feel like an endless slog. It certainly does not do much to avoid triggering that reaction. But on the other hand, if one can approach the film without needing it to build and build towards a fiery conclusion, there's a whole hell of a lot going on here that's absolutely terrific. The film offers its own possible framework in the form of Paul Éluard's 1942 poem Liberté, which appears here in a new translation, and is broken up and recited in chunks, repeated in no clear order, throughout the film's running time. So let us think of it thus: as a poem. It is structured not as a story, but as series of refrains and rhymes, a collection of anecdote-like scenes that are all constructed like perfect little stanzas - all with unusually clear beginnings, middles, and ends -and which draw upon a shared pool of images, concepts, and language. Themes are woven throughout, subdued and barely noticeable in some passages, foregrounded in others with the implicit invitation to compare and contrast the way those themes are developed and how they change based on context. So maybe like a symphony, in addition to a poem.

Whatever the case, it's one of the most unusual films in director David Cronenberg's highly unusual career. It feels very much like the proper follow-up to his last film, 2012's Cosmopolis, though I couldn't honestly speak to a single element of aesthetic, performance, or story where the two films actually seem to meet. Maybe it's that both of them feel like they're using literary technique bent to the very different needs of cinema. Maps to the Stars perhaps fits more snugly into the general notion of what a Cronenberg film is: it has rampant psychotic behavior, incest both accidental and deliberate, and a fixation on the way people's bodies announce who they are to the world, without necessarily doing so with any accuracy. But little flickers of Cronenbergian madness certainly feel strangely out of place in a character-driven satiric comedy soaked through with snarky inside jokes about the state of modern Hollywood - Bruce Wagner's strange and somewhat terrific screenplay (that would be the Bruce Wagner whose erratic career includes A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, the best horror sequel of the 1980s) has the smug insider vocabulary of a particularly insipid Oscar telecast, only strung along a spine of disconcerting anti-realism that makes idle comments about Anne Hathaway, Garry Marshall, and "Harvey" feel like a bad acid trip that followed a day spent devouring back issues of Entertainment Weekly.

That combination of gossipy name-dropping, parodic broadsides about how those Hollywood fuckers live, and the steady drone of Lovecraftian madness that never quite lets the film go end up making Maps to the Stars one of the indisputably oddest pop culture satires in living memory, and to my mind, a staggeringly effective one. No film has better depicted Hollywood as a fever swamp of insecurity driving people to be their worst selves, all within a slippery structure of irrationality and subjective editing, since at least Full Frontal, and I realise that invoking that film as a comparison - and particularly a positive one - says more about me than about either movie. But they're working in similar territory, trying to explode the idea of stardom with the righteous rage of outsiders attempting to break cinematic language as a way of demonstrating the vapidity of the people who construct cinema.

I've gone a long way without even hinting at the plot, though that's at least in part because Maps to the Stars resists a plot synopsis. But here goes anyway: the film presents interrelated stories of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging movie star trying to land the part her dead, (maybe) sexually abusive mother played in a movie that's going to be remade; her massage therapist and TV self-help guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), husband to Christina (Olivia Williams), the surly manager of their 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a foul-mouthed narcissist who's just leaving rehab. Slashing across these lives is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a recent transplant to Los Angeles, covered in burn scars, who lands a job as Havana's new personal assistant, and has connections to the Weisses that the film smartly doesn't try to pretend should be a shocking revelation, but simply runs with as soon as enough evidence has piled up that we can start to put things together.

The film touches on themes about how acting can serve to knock one's sense of self out of order, and not just the acting that's done by professionals in front of cameras; but the more rewarding elements are those related to the insistence of the past in interfering with the present, with people having a difficult time grasping the reality of death, with how movies and the movie industry serve as a giant machine for trying to enable people to pretend that death doesn't exist, that stars are ageless, and so on and so forth. The best way it builds its ideas is through that poetic repetition; the way that things like burning, visitations from ghosts, specific lines of dialogue and images, all keep repeating in different places. It's complex without being terribly confusing, though the effect is more impressionistic than movies tend to be.

None of which should be meant to imply that Maps to the Stars is up its own ass, though I guess it probably is. On top of everything, it's frequently hilarious - there are multiple lines of dialogue so crude, absurd, or frequently both, that they're likely to hold on as some of the funniest things said in American theaters in 2015 - and brilliantly acted: Moore, who won the Best Actress award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, is the clear stand-out, plunging fearlessly into a desperately pathetic shell of a person, raging and awful but also so helpless that even at her most hateful, we feel sorry for her. Wasikowska is miraculously enigmatic without feeling inhuman, and Cusack mixes smarmy hucksterism, outbursts of violence, and sweaty terror in perfect balance, to achieve one of the best performances of his career. But the whole cast is great, with Bird being perhaps understandably swamped by his powerhouse co-stars.

It's not a film for everybody, though I suspect it's for more people than are likely to encounter it. Cronenberg and Wagner are up to some very peculiar things here, but the film offers plenty of entry points (its comedy, its relatively obvious and straightforward symbolism, the almighty Moore in her most commending and grabby performance since... Christ, a long time, The Hours at least) that make it rather surprisingly entertaining for something so rabidly artsy and anti-commercial. At any rate, you're not going to bump into anything else this year that resembles it much at all, and for that, I can only offer praise.

9/10