Gus Van Sant’s new movie is a fictional reflection on how Nirvana rocker Kurt Cobain might have spent the days before his 1994 suicide: Watching television, wandering through his mansion, hiding from everyone who tries to help.
The impressionistic “Last Days” is competing for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival two years after Van Sant won the honor with “Elephant,” loosely based on the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
In blending fact and fiction again, Van Sant offers up a character in “Last Days” who’s a famous but lonely musician named Blake, played by Michael Pitt (“The Dreamers”). Pitt has Cobain’s shaggy blond hair, stubble and slouch.
Like Cobain, Blake is fond of macaroni and cheese, scribbles his thoughts in a notebook and sings in a desperate wail. And like Cobain, he escapes from a detox center before his final spiral into despair.
Beyond that, most events of the movie come from Van Sant’s imagination. Nobody knows how Cobain spent the days before he wrote a suicide note, injected himself with heroin and fired a 20-gauge shotgun into his mouth.
“Those particular days are kind of lost days,” Van Sant said. So the movie “was all a poetic exercise.”
The film has an understated feel. There are no scenes of Blake taking drugs, and the death scene is off-camera. The focus is on small moments: Blake watches a Boyz II Men video, makes pasta, has a surreal dialogue with a door-to-door salesman.
Blake spends much of the movie muttering to himself and has little interaction with others. When hangers-on party at Blake’s run-down mansion, dancing to the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” they all but ignore him. The only times they approach him are to ask for money or favors.
Sonic Youth singer-bassist Kim Gordon plays a record company representative who tries to persuade Blake to check into rehab. She has a car waiting, but he ignores her.
“You really can only do so much to help someone,” Gordon said. Winning success and fame, “Kurt was kind of removed or alienated by what he thought he wanted, and was kind of entrapped by it.”
Van Sant said he has been thinking about the project for nearly a decade. At one stage, he wanted to do a Cobain biopic.
“I sort of entertained that for just a brief moment before I thought it would just turn into a kind of regular biopic that wasn’t anything special,” he said. “It would have been too much information.”
Van Sant isn’t sure how Cobain’s fans and family will react to the film. He has talked to Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, several times over the years about his project, but he did not share details on their conversations.
The volatile Love wasn’t with Cobain during his final days, and Van Sant did not cast an equivalent of her.
“There is a voice on the phone that you can think of as Blake’s wife if you pushed it in that direction,” he said. “But yeah, we were afraid that she was going to sue us.”