The film, based on crime novelist James Ellroy's best-selling whodunit, tells the story of the sensational 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old aspiring actress who was found brutally slain in a vacant Los Angeles lot.
Her grisly death grabbed headlines for months, in what Ellroy called America's first "media murder." And it continues to prompt media interest. On the eve of the movie's premiere, CBS News program
48 Hours broadcast into the decades-old case.
"I think that in general when there are periods of depression in a country people distract themselves with scandal," said Johansson, who plays the girlfriend of a police officer investigating the murder.
"We've seen it in the past and we're sort of seeing it now. We have a war going on, a mass genocide, and we have someone brought over from Thailand for a test ... in a case that happened a long time ago," Johansson said, referring to the media attention surrounding the extradition to the United States of John Mark Karr, who was briefly a suspect in the decade-old murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey.
"I think people distract themselves from their depression," said Johansson, one of the first celebrities to arrive at the Lido.
The book and the movie provided a more personal catharsis for Ellroy, who said the film also "derives from my own mother's murder in 1958." Ellroy was 10 years old.
Beside exploring the theme of "misogynist murders," the film also deals with the themes of "sexual obsession, redemption and the triangulation of one man between two women," Ellroy said.
The triangle is between Johansson, her policeman boyfriend (Aaron Eckhart) and the daughter of a prominent family with an unsavory connection herself, played by two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. Mia Kirshner plays Elizabeth "Betty" Short, who became known as The Black Dahlia after her death for habitually wearing a flower in her hair.
"Those are my favorite characters — these obsessive characters, these femmes fatales," De Palma said.
Ellroy, whose book L.A. Confidential was turned into the successful 1997 film, praised De Palma's adaptation of his novel.
While he was especially pleased with the moderating effect of the narration provided by Josh Harnett's character — homicide detective Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert — Ellroy acknowledged he initially objected to the idea of including actual footage of the slain actress's screen test.
"But we now have an emotional and moral stake in Elizabeth Short's death for having seen it," Ellroy said.
"The Black Dahlia" is among 21 films competing for the coveted Gold Lion, which will be awarded on the final day of the festival, Sept. 9.