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Cannes #2: Death of a star

The famous red-carpeted staircase leading up to the Palais des Festivals is mirrored in the logo for this year's Cannes Film Festival.

CANNES, France – If you’re going to make a movie about a rock star who drifts into drugged oblivion and death, you basically have two choices. You could make one of those lurid biopics filled with flashbacks to a tortured childhood and lots of concert scenes and sex, while the star savors success before it destroys him.

Or you could do it the Gus Van Sant way. His new film “Last Days” is a dark, lonely portrait of a man leaving this world almost obliviously. A closing credit acknowledges that the film is inspired by the life and death of Kurt Cobain, and adds, in the most precisely-worded disclaimer I can imagine, “the characters are, in part, fictional.”

“Last Days,” an official festival entry here at Cannes, is a film I admire enormously while wondering if anyone will want to see it. The more you know about filmmaking the more you will appreciate it; the more you know about Kurt Cobain, the less. Van Sant refuses to romanticize the material or analyze the personality or motivation of his subject, named Blake (Michael Pitt). He doesn’t even show him using drugs. Sometimes he doesn’t even show him at all.

The film is wonderfully photographed by Harris Savides, who captures a damp, chilly world of cold stone houses isolated in a dark, gloomy forest. Blake is first seen wandering in the woods, mumbling to himself, sliding down a hill, splashing in a stream, and sitting beside a campfire defiantly shouting “Home on the Range” into the indifferent night.

The film watches, mostly in long shot, as he drifts in and out of a cabin on the grounds of one of the houses. Visitors arrive and leave. Band members talk vaguely of songs they’re working on. A private detective (Ricky Jay) arrives to have a look at him, and can’t find him. A woman, not identified, appears and asks, “Do you talk to your daughter? Do you say, ‘I’m sorry that I’m a rock and roll cliché?’” She wants him to leave with her. He will not.

There are disconnected passages from a suicide note, which he reads aloud to himself. Long shots of him at a distance, moving aimlessly inside the cabin. Events unfold around him without his notice or participation. One night as some friends are driving away, one stops and looks for a long time at his figure, wandering alone in a window. The next day he is found dead.

This is the third of Van Sant’s death trilogy. “Gerry” was about two friends who go for a walk in the desert and get lost, and never get found. “Elephant,” which won the Palme d’Or here two years ago, was inspired by Columbine and followed two students as they methodically went about the process of murder. Now this bleak death of a man so wiped out by drugs that he is not really present for his own exit.

The distinguishing thing about all three films, the courageous thing, is that Van Sant refuses to manufacture drama to “explain” the events. In the world of these films, death comes without motive or meaning. The characters are already doomed when we meet them, but not for reasons he supplies in a simple-minded docudrama way. When Jim Morrison checks out in “The Doors,” it’s Wagner crossed with Entertainment Tonight. When the “in part, fictional” character in “Last Days” dies, it is like the slow flickering out of a lamp. This, Van Sant suggests, is what it is really like to die of numbing drug abuse: Not sensational, not dramatic, just the mind wandering away and leaving the body to stumble into its grave.

* * *

What are the odds the film will win another Palme for Van Sant? Derek Malcolm doesn’t have a clue. Faithful readers will recall that Malcolm, a former jockey who became the film critic of the Guardian of London, is the festival’s unofficial bookie. He offers odds, takes bets, pays off on winners. Really. This is not a joke.

I ran into him right after the screening of “Last Days.” I asked him what odds he was quoting. “No odds as yet,” he mused. “This is a very difficult festival to handicap.” The problem is said, is the jury president, Emir Kusturica. “He’s such an a—hole. You never know what he’s going to back. He’s very competitive with other directors.”

Another problem: The legendary French director Agnes Varda, who is also on the jury. “Varda and Kusturica will be at each other’s throats. God knows what the winners will turn out to be.” Other jurors, including author Toni Morrison, actress Salma Hayek, actor Javier Bardem and director John Woo, are likely to be hiding under the table.

Malcolm said, however, he hopes to be quoting odds in a day or two. “I could make a lot of money on this festival,” he said, “since people will, as always, make the mistake of betting on the movie they like the most.”

* * *

That movie so far is Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” which is playing out of competition but has scored a genuine triumph. It’s a diabolical story, set in London, about tennis, snobbery, adultery and murder, shot through with guilt and sweaty palms. I wrote about it two days ago with much enthusiasm.

“I wonder if even Woody himself knows what a good film he has made,” the critic Peter Brunette mused, after consulting Derek Malcolm on the odds. Todd McCarthy, the influential chief critic of Variety, the showbiz Bible, says in his review: “Well observed and superbly cast picture is the filmmaker’s best in quite a long time.” A French newspaper headline translates as “The day of glory for Woody Allen.”

Allen’s recent films have not set the box office on fire. “Match Point” currently doesn’t have a U.S. distributor, but a bidding war is underway and rights may sell for more than any Allen picture in years.

* * *

Faithful readers will recall Billy (Silver Dollar) Baxter, the Damon Runyonesque character who in the 1970s and early 1980s added color, excitement and a great deal of noise to the festival. His policy was that all waiters everywhere in the world are named “Irving.” His war cry in the Majestic Bar was always the same: “Irving! Brang ‘em on! Johnny Walker! Black Label! Big glass! Pas de soda! Pas de ice! And clean up this mess! And bring me some peanuts and those little olives like I like!”

Silver Dollar Baxter brought along a bag of silver dollars to use as tips, and they got him service that a $50 bill could not have purchased. He starred in two of my books, the factual Two Weeks in the Midday Sun and the fictional Behind the Phantom’s Mask.

Billy retired from the Cannes scene 20 years ago. But he is not forgotten. Today I wandered into the Majestic Bar, sadly refurbished from its former shabby glory, and ran into the New York film distributor Ben Barenholtz, who was beaming with joy.

“There’s still one Irving left,” he said. “I walked in last night and shouted Irving! and this guy came running out from behind the bar vibrating with excitement. But it was only me. He reached in his pocket, and showed me his silver dollar.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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