“She Was Burnt In a Fire:” Agatha’s Leather Gloves in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars

I’ve seldom experienced the unique and eerie feeling of being “called” by a movie. It happens when you’re not particularly interested in a film, but there’s something in it, something suddenly appealing and compelling which forces you to go to the cinema and get lost in it. It’s recently happened to me with the latest work by David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars, based on the novel Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner [1].

It’s a wild and sad story of people lost in a sun-scorched Hollywood where self-promotion, money and celebrity hide dark (disturbing family secrets and addictions) and eerie aspects (ghosts from the past haunting the present and pushing the protagonists to the limit). The character who has caught my attention is Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska): she appears out of nowhere into the lives of the limousine driver/actor/aspiring screenwriter Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) and of the troubled actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). She shares the same obsession with celebrity which drives all the other characters, but her appearance reveals a different story. Agatha is a freak, like those of the 1932 Todd Browning film: one side of her face is covered in scars (the remains of a fire she started in her family house) and the same can be said for her décolletage, arms, hands, chest and legs, which she always keeps hidden. The make-up-less face and her childish bob haircut add jarring notes.

maps-to-the-stars-img04Her style is minimalistic: she wears loose t-shirts in neutral shades (black, heather grey) and a black top underneath, black leggings as tights and flat strappy sandals. She wears an aubergine skirt and a black bandage dress only once – the latter in a very important scene. The most striking elements of her outfits are obviously the black leather gloves [2] she never takes off.

maps-to-the-stars-3The gloves have a function – they hide Agatha’s scars – but they can’t be seen as a casual choice by the costume designer Denise Cronenberg. They contrast with the basic garments she wears and are a reference to the glorious past of the cinema’s capital city.

MTTS_00992.NEFSuch a formal accessory echoes a different attitude towards life and a completely different style: mandatory for upper-class men and women in the 19th century, they were later worn as a touch of elegance in equally elegant outfit (think of Christian Dior’s New Look) or as a seduction weapon (as shown by Gilda and Lorelei Lee, not to mention burlesque queens and pin-ups like Bettie Page). They look strange on Agatha, yet they perfectly suit her: they add mystery to someone who is mysterious since the beginning.

maps-to-the-stars-julianne-moore-mia-wasikowskaAgatha covers up because she doesn’t want to show her scars; moreover, the habit of wearing black clothes enhances the gloves. These style choices create a counterpart to the outfits sported by her boss, who embodies the classic Hollywood middle-aged actress who wants to feel still young and desirable. When Havana first meets Agatha and employs her as personal assistant, she says they were meant to meet. By the end of the film, a tragic irony will prove Havana wrong, but in the meantime they look complementary.

robert-pattinson-kiss-maps-to-stars-set-08222013-24-900x675Many are the implications of Agatha dressed in black: she can be seen as a femme fatale sui generis (she seduces Jerome, even if their liaison will lead nowhere) or as a character who is hiding. This verb is particularly important because she’s actually hiding from her family, while waiting to go back into their lives in a very violent and disruptive way. Wasikowska explained: “I love Agatha because she’s dark inside but at the same time in a lot of ways she has this very positive outlook. There’s something very sweet and sad about this girl who in the midst of these celebrity-obsessed parents, and this troubled past, really just wants to connect with them. They’ve totally rejected her, but in a way, she’s desperately trying to mimic their lives.”  So the inner darkness shows on the outside.

scena-drammatica-con-mia-wasikowskaEven if her family (in particular her father, Dr. Stafford Weiss, played by John Cusak) has rejected her, she has kept her eyes on them: she’s read her father’s self-help books and watched the films starring her younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird); once in Hollywood, she tries to “make amends” for what she’s done. She’s apparently naïve and innocent, but she is unable to leave her dramatic past behind; for this reason, the black clothes may symbolize the decision to hide her real intentions, too.

una-scena-con-mia-wasikowskaThe only scene in which she wears a dress (apparently a Herve Leger open-back bandage dress from Havana’s closet) introduces the audience to the closing section of the film. This outfit probably shows her real self [3]: it uncovers her décolletage, shoulders and upper arms; it is tight and creates a sexy combination with the gloves. By wearing this outfit she welcomes her brother at Havana’s and convinces him to retrace their parents’ footsteps, an action which they won’t be able to turn back from.

I wouldn’t say the character goes through a metamorphosis [4] because she’s a bomb ready to explode. Agatha is a black hole: as such, she drags all her family into a darkness where personal tragedies, allucinations, greed and recriminations are no more. She’s a scared child who can’t grow up because she can’t come to terms with her past and with her parents’ reaction to it. This is the reason why the black gloves look so right and so wrong on her: it’s true she seems to be playing in her mother’s clothes, but at the same time she’s the avenging angel coming from the past to deal out justice.

[1] He wrote the screenplay of the film and appears in it as a limousine driver. The role of Jerome is based on his own experience, since he worked as a driver while trying to establish himself as an actor and a writer.

[2] Coincidence: I’ve recently written about the vintage wrist-length gloves worn by the same actress in Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmush.

[3] Menstruation can be seen as another symbol with which Agatha reveals herself as she really is, as if this event allowed her to connect to her deepest and truest self and its destructive power. Something similar was envisioned by Stephen King in his 1974 debut novel, Carrie.

[4] Curious how another character played by Wasikowska – India Stoker in the 2013 film by Chan-wook Park – famously transforms herself in the narration.

Source and source.

3 comments

  1. Wow, what a movie, so dark and violent even if it is not shot according to genre rules. I kept thinking: “She must be so hot in LA with those gloves”, which of course adds to her unfathomable personality. I liked the “gloves coincidence” with the Jarmush movie, as she plays a very similar character there.

  2. I believe almost everyone also have thought the about the gloves. At first, I thought: “man, this chick must be eccentric”, but then I’m kinda eccentric too. I may be a bit goth inside… Lol but I actually love her minimalist style combined with her beautiful opera gloves, but the fact that she wouldn’t part with them for a second in a city like L.A. was a good to smell a rat, to say the least. As I watched the movie, I start to suspect what the meaning of the mysterious gloves in the film was.

    I also find the movie dark and violent, and as an animal lover myself, the scene of the boy shooting the dog was utterly unsettling.

    Actually I wasn’t quite expecting for all that. When I start watching the movie, I was actually hoping for more romantic overtones… Still a pretty good movie, anyway, as well as your review.

    Thanks for sharing your insight! Nicely done.

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