It's a move that's paid off--the film took the audience award at the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at Outfest '97 in L.A. But while this elaborate, swoony, faintly masochistic tragedy about young gay love and the impact of religious repression is in many ways a remarkable work, and worth seeing, it ultimately feels like a misfire. Its cinematic flourishes only emphasize the fundamentally static, theatrical nature of the material.
In northern Quebec in the early '50s, an elderly Bishop (Marcel Sabourin) goes to visit an old friend (Aubert Pallascio) from Catholic school, now a prison lifer wishing to make his last confession. But the meeting is a trap--the prison chaplain locks the Bish in the confessional with his old schoolfellow, and the two of them watch as a company of prisoners puts on a stage production, dramatizing events from their school days, when the Bishop, the convict and another boy (played as youths by Matthew Ferguson, Jason Cadieux and Danny Gilmore, respectively), were delicate, hot-blooded beauties involved in a love triangle.
As the old men watch the drama enacted, the movie flashes back to exquisitely re-created period scenes set in 1912 Quebec, in a resort town along Lac St. Jean. The tensions between the three boys--the passionate Cadieux, the innocent Gilmore and the dangerously repressed Ferguson--are further complicated when Cadieux gets involved with a woman, a ravishing visiting aristocrat, and we can see that the story is heading toward violence and betrayal.
Directed by John Greyson, Lilies is generally beautiful to look at, and most of the acting is good. Only two actual women appear in the film; producers Anna Stratton and Robin Cass have tiny cameos. All of the major women's roles are played by men--Alexander Chapman, Brent Carver, Remy Girard--in drag, and all of them are impressive.
The ingenues who play the three young title characters get a little monotonous in delivering their rhapsodic lines, but that may have as much to do with the writing as with the performers. When you're repeatedly put in the position of wooing your lover with scenes from the martyrdom of St. Sebastian--the school play in which Gilmore and Cadieux are appearing--it's hard to escape a little eye-rolling from the audience.
Somehow, Lilies never quite shakes off the theatrical formality of its Genet-influenced, Marat/Sade-ish conceit--which may have been powerful on the stage--and comes to life as a movie. About the only cinematic flair is in the clever transitions between the two time periods. When the aristocrat arrives, for instance, it's by hot-air balloon, which the "actors" represent by sending a tiny prop sailing along a wire. The Bishop's eye follows the miniature, but then he looks up, the roof is pulled off of the confessional, and he's looking up into the real sky, as a real balloon sails over.
An even lovelier moment occurs toward the end, when we see the convict and the Bishop sitting side by side on the shore of the lake, staring out wistfully at what is, of course, only the memory of their childhood stomping grounds. It's a sad, infinitely touching visual suggestion--that some shared memories are so beautiful that they can transcend lifelong enmity.
Directed by John Greyson; with Brent Carver, Marcel Sabourin, Aubert Pallascio, Jason Cadieux and Danny Gilmore.