A highly stylized treatment, a decorous all-male cast, painterly cinematography and lighting, a bit of full-frontal nudity, a standout performance by Brent Carver (Broadway's Kiss of the Spider Woman), the Canadian Genie Award for Best Motion Picture, and a passel of Best Film and Audience Award honors at festivals ranging from L.A.'s Outfest and San Francisco's gay festival to Montreal and Locarno give John Greyson's gay-themed, Canadian feature Lilies a good shot at a successful run on the specialized film circuit. While some viewers will gag on the drama's overripe romanticism and relentless archness, others will be amused and even moved by the tragic tale of innocent love, poisonous jealousy and exquisite revenge.
Adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard's play Les Feluettes by the author, Lilies mixes elements of Jean Genet, Marat/Sade, Derek Jarman and Ken Russell into a design of baroque complexity. Set in 1952, the story begins when Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin), a Catholic Bishop, is summoned to a Quebec prison to hear the confession of the dying Simon (Aubert Pallascio), a convicted murderer and longtime inmate with whom Bilodeau attended secondary school.
When the Bishop enters the prison chapel, however, he is himself taken prisoner and forced to witness a play performed by the inmates, which tells the real story behind the 40-year-old murder and reveals the pivotal role he played. The film moves between the prison staging of the story, which frequently opens out to a stylized, on-location re-enactment, and the Bishop's evolution from outraged denial to acceptance of responsibility.
The play's focal characters are madly-in-love, 18-year-old schoolboys Simon (Jason Cadieux) and Vallier (Danny Gilmore). Aware of the affair and pretending to be sickened by it, the young Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson) is seething with envy and gay self-hatred. Also on the scene are the Countess (Carver), Vallier's Madwoman-of-Chaillot-like mother, and garrulous Parisienne Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), who, after making a traffic-stopping entrance in a multicolored hot-air balloon, makes an equally showy play for the long-lashed, pouting-lipped Simon. When push finally comes to shove, the Countess makes the ultimate sacrifice for her son and his lover and a near-mad Bilodeau does the movie's version of 'If I can't have you, no one can.'
Director John Greyson (Zero Patience) deserves much credit for realizing an outrageous theatrical conceit with clarity, consistency, and an arsenal of cinematic ideas. Daniel Jobin's cinematography is beautiful, Sandra Kybartas' production design offers imaginative solutions to the piece's challenges, and Mychael Danna's (Exotica) liturgical score creates the proper atmosphere.
If gay Canadian movies won Oscar nominations, Carver would rate a supporting-performance nod for his perfectly modulated, moving work as the Countess. Cadieux and Gilmore look like Caravaggio supermodels and play the artless young lovers appealingly; as the young Bilodeau, Ferguson (Love and Human Remains) reaffirms his place among Canada's finest young film actors; and Sabourin and Pallascio bring authority to the respective roles of the Bishop and old Simon.
Within the gay moviegoing sphere, Lilies is likely to have its equally passionate supporters and detractors. That level of controversy should translate into lively box office.