MOVIE REVIEW: LILIES
Canadian queer filmmaker John Greyson (Zero Patience, Uncut) has been criticized -- and dismissed by some -- as too cerebral and too cold. His critics won't find much reason to revise their opinion in his new film, Lilies, in spite of a strong theatrical pedigree and the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Picture. On the other hand, anyone interested in the painterly possibilities of movies, or that nebulous entity known as the New Queer Cinema, or -- what the heck -- beautiful men, will find suitable distraction in this lush, literate mix of Genet, Brecht, and Ronald Firbank.
Adapted by Michel Marc Bouchard from his play Les Feluettes, Lilies opens in a small Quebec prison in 1952. A group of inmates is staging a play, and no ordinary one. They've bribed the guards, co-opted the chaplain, and lured the powerful bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin) with the supposed purpose of taking the confession of a dying prisoner, Simon (Aubert Pallascio). Once inside, the bishop is kidnapped, forced to watch an "entertainment" devised by Simon that's actually an exploration of their mutual tragic history. In 1912, 18-year-olds Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson), Simon (gorgeous, black-eyed Jason Cadieux), and Vallier (Danny Gilmore) were joined in a lethal gay triangle, with Simon the understandable object of both the other men's lust and love.
From the grimy walls of the prison, Greyson takes us to the richly imagined never-never land of Roberval, a village in northern Quebec. In the opening sequence of the first flashback, we see a young Simon, Vallier, and Bilodeau recreating that Catholic School perennial, the story of Saint Sebastian, for their school play. But the sexual resonance of this naked, bound martyr-figure, played by Simon, is disturbing to Bilodeau, who can't confront his own homosexuality, his attraction to Simon, or his hatred of the obvious erotic charge between Simon and Vallier, who are indeed having an affair.
Greyson expands on the kitsch-camp potential of the Saint Sebastian figure by casting male actors in the female roles, a conceit (no doubt derived from the play) that makes sense if we are to view the events as the imaginative creation of a group of male prisoners. On the other hand, it's a little disconcerting to see an actor like Brent Carver simply donning a dress and adding a few strands of wig to his head to become Vallier's mother, the demented Countess de Tilly. Even more extreme, and redolent of the ethereal camp of Firbank, is the character of Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), a black French "woman" who arrives at Roberval to much fanfare in a hot air balloon. The film toys with the audience by refusing to explain or apologize for this unusual drag strategy, in fact rubbing our noses in gender confusion by having the actors speak in their own voices, not in the queenly, mocking strains we've come to expect from men in dresses. To further confound us, these "women" are blatantly titless, their chest hairs curling visibly over the tops of their gowns.
In the foreground of these campy proceedings, Simon's gay affair with Vallier comes to the attention of his father, who beats him unmercifully. This sends Simon scampering into the arms of Lydie-Anne, with whom he becomes engaged. But he can't repudiate Vallier, and while Lydie-Anne waits rather pathetically for him, Simon meets Vallier again, seemingly for the last time. In a scene that resonates with sensuality, and shows Greyson's powers as a pictorialist, past and present merge as the two make love in a boat that transforms into a bathtub on the filthy floor of the modern prison. In the final flashback, the literal hellfire that religious fanatics like Bilodeau believe are the inevitable result of a homosexual tryst, brings this affair to a tragic end, puts Simon in prison for the rest of his life, and marks Bilodeau forever.
Despite its complex structure, shimmering tableaux of lost love, playful gender politics, and intriguing performances, Lilies remains somewhat frozen, its characters caught like mysterious figures in some ancient frieze. Greyson's clever manipulations are ultimately more intellectual than visceral, and while the film dazzles the eye, it doesn't always engage the emotions.
--Gary Morris, Brights Lights Film Journal
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Film at OUTFEST '97: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, as well as the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.
Director: Greyson, John
Starring: Alexander Chapman ; Aubert Pallascio ; Brent Carver