"The Cat's Meow" by US film director Peter Bogdanovich, which had its world premiere at the Locarno film festival, is set in Hollywood's society of rich and famous celebrities.
The story, based on a play by Steven Peros, who also wrote the script, is played out on the private yacht of the billionaire media magnate of the time, William Randolph Hearst.
Among the small party of Hearst's guests who set out on a two-day cruise off the southern California coast is comedy actor and director Charlie Chaplin, who is as brilliant and witty as he is narcissistic. The guests also include Hearst's mistress, the actress Marion Davies; Hollywood producer Thomas Ince; Louella Parsons, an ambitious gossip columnist; and the eccentric British novelist Elinor Glyn.
"The story is basically about what happens on that yacht over a period of two days," Bogdanovich told swissinfo.
While all of these hardened 1920s party goers want and expect no more from each other than a jolly good time, the audience is quickly let into their various dark secrets. Each character follows his or her own scheme, driven by greed, passion or envy.
The film begins with a burial and a strong hint that the death that occurred during the trip was not accidental, but murder. However, the audience is left in the dark until well into the plot.
The story is based on the true acount of an "accident" that occurred on Hearst's yacht in 1924. It formed the basis of rumours, but inexplicably - or explicably, given Hearst's power - it was never investigated by police.
"The plot is authentic in so far as the basic outline of what happens in the film has been published in a few books and been whispered about for 70 years," the film director explained.
Bogdanovich said he was told his version of the events by the American movie icon, Orson Welles, who investigated Hearst's biography when he made "Citizen Kane" in 1941. The film's main character, Charles Foster Kane, is based on the media magnate, who was still alive at the time and threatened to sue Welles if he didn't shroud his film in fiction.
"Orson Welles first told me the story sort of under his breath literally 32 years ago, but whether it's exactly true as to what happened, nobody will ever know," he said.
"The Cat's Meow" is set in the 1920s on a luxury boat characterised by its narrow hallways and steps, and thin walls between passenger compartments. The film could easily remind you of "Death on the Nile", a 1970s thriller based on an Agatha Christie novel.
However, Bogdanovich succeeds in elevating the story to a parable about how success can destroy people's ability to enjoy happiness.
In a sequence at the outset of the yacht trip, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) tells a fable about the "beast", which symbolises the Hollywood movie industry.
She explains that the creature slowly took possession of people's minds.
As a result, they became preoccupied with money to the point where they sold their morality.
Glyn's audience is briefly gripped by silence. But these moments, which suggest why Bogdanovich ("What's Up Doc'", "Paper Moon", "Nickeldeon") was attracted to the story, are quite rare.
The film is charmingly entertaining and noteworthy as a thriller that doesn't rely on "action". "I would call it a suspenseful drama", Bogdanovich explained.
The director added that he followed Hemingway, who said you should write about what you know. Being well acquainted with the history of movies, Bogdanovich said he felt close to his characters.
"I felt a kind of connection to almost all the people in the picture", Bogdanovich said. "I understood Chaplin, who was incredibly successful and kind of dizzy with power and fame, as well as Ince who was desperate and losing power," he concluded.
"The Cat's Meow", however, is less convincing as a satirical parable.
The celebreties come away as rather kind and pleasant almost despite themselves. Compared to "Citizen Kane", the main character played by Edward Herrmann also does not reach Wells' classic portrayal of a Hearst-type media magnate in its evilness and cynicism.
by Markus Haefliger