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By Jeremy Mathews | May 13, 2005

Every day at the Cannes Film Festival, people who will not be able to see any films gather around the outside of the Grand Theatre Lumiere for hours in the hopes of spotting celebrities. If they could actually watch the two films that premiered in competition on Friday, they might rethink their routine.

Canadian director Atom Egoyan, a virtuoso with multiple perspectives and character depth, turned in a strong competition entry, “Where the Truth Lies.” The film combines happening period style, sexual exploits and a mystery. Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth play Lanny and Vince, a performing duo with Bacon as the wild boy and Firth as the straight man, who experienced a scandal 15 years ago and, despite no charges being filed, broke up the act. Alison Lohman plays an aspiring journalist who arranges an interview with Firth’s character. Her publisher will pay him $1 million, and he will talk about his life, including the mysterious scandal, when a hotel employee was found dead in a bathtub following a Polio telethon. It’s unknown whether she overdosed, committed suicide or was murdered.

Egoyan is very observant in his study of celebrity and how its power influences those who have it and fascinates those watching. These famous performers indulge in luxurious living and the power to have sex with whichever audience member they’d like. Meanwhile, the public consumes the information of their personal lives, taking whatever information they can get their hands on. Lohman’s character is using their personal lives to jump-start her own career, and in one instance becomes intimate with Lanny through a series of lies. But Egoyan doesn’t vilify her, and she manages to be one of the film’s most sympathetic characters.

The mystery wraps up in a tidier manner than I expected from Egoyan, but still deals with the shaky perspective each character has on events, making incorrect assumptions to fill in gaps in the story. The people whom the incident changed the most lack much of the knowledge that the celebrity gossip hounds seek. A sad personal event became a much-discussed public event, making the emotional impact stronger.

Today’s other competition entry also dealt with the tragedy that can hit celebrity, but in a much different way. Writer/director Gus Van Sant presented the third of a trilogy of films related to death, which began with Gerry (2001) and continued with “Elephant,” which won the Palme d’Or here in 2003. “Last Days” comes as a disappointment after Elephant, which was both observant and understanding in its portrayal of high school violence. In this film, Van Sant uses the same interest in long takes, and also replays the same time period from different shots, but isn’t as sharp in his observations.

The film is loosely based on the days leading up to the suicide of Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain—so loosely that the card telling us that it’s a work of fiction has to be shown early in the end titles instead of at the end of the scroll. Michael Pitt plays the sad, mumbling musical genius Blake, who looks a great deal like Cobain with his bleach-blonde, greasy hair, tall, scrawny figure and near-identical sunglasses and sweaters.

It’s always difficult to make a film about a suicide, and this difficulty shows in “Last Days,” which follows Blake around as he mumbles complaints and lyrics as he walks around the wooded area in his house, makes himself cereal and occasionally picks up a guitar. Meanwhile, his entourage of band members, hangers-on and a private investigator played by magician Ricky Jay talk about his failure but don’t try to ease his pain.

Van Sant never really offers a solid depiction of Blake’s consciousness, which is partly the point, but also a problem for a character with whom the audience is supposed to become involved. Pitt is authentic in the role, as his character walks around in a stumbled, depressed haze, mumbling unintelligible statements. There are beautiful moments in the film and some interesting shots, but the drug-addled rocker is so far gone when the film begins that it’s missed the best parts.

The most interesting aspect of the film is how the people around Blake deal with his deterioration. We see people still trying to leech off his talent and celebrity, others still trying to communicate with him. Jay’s detective character tells the interesting story of a magician who died trying to catch a bullet in his teeth and whose death—and whether it was suicide, an accident or murder—is still under speculation, just as Cobain’s death has remained under scrutiny. Two visitors come to the house, one a yellow pages ad salesman whom Blake, barely conscious, speaks with about the ad for his model train store in a nice moment of comic relief. The other visitors are an identical pair of Mormon missionaries who recite their pitch to the other people at the house. Even if the trilogy didn’t end on its strongest film, there are enough moments like these in the film to make it worth while, and it will be exciting to see what Van Sant does next.

Keep checking back for further coverage from the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

Check out Jeremy’s previous report>>>

Visit the Cannes Film Festival website.

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