A bit less straining for gay effect would have helped “Lilies” bloom. Canuck director John Greyson’s second full-fledged feature isn’t half as way-out as his AIDS musical “Zero Patience” but leaves the feeling that underneath all the cross-dressing malarkey lurks a much more powerful drama of thwarted male love than reaches the screen. Fans of the original play should turn out in numbers, but mild B.O. looks likely for this tricky Alliance release, which has little crossover potential to general auds. Still, on this evidence Greyson emerges from the indie outfield as a talent more than capable of harnessing his visual invention to more mainstream material if the will is there.
Michel Marc Bouchard’s legit work first played Montreal in 1987, and later in an English-language version in Toronto. Greyson’s pic is in English, in a fluent version by translator Linda Gaboriau, which may possibly create extra marketing problems for Alliance in Francophone Canada.
Multilevel performance structure, and initial setting in a confined space, recall “Man of La Mancha” and “Marat/Sade.” Here, it’s a men’s jail in 1952 Quebec, whither goes Bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin) to hear an important confession from granite-hard con Simon Doucet (Aubert Pallascio). Locked in the confession box by Simon’s fellow inmates, Bilodeau is forced to witness acted-out scenes from the homoerotic play “The Death of St. Sebastian,” as the prison chapel, surrounded by wire fencing, becomes an impromptu theater.
The play becomes a link — achieved through striking visuals — to the real film-within-a-film, set in 1912 in Northern Quebec and centering on homosexual passions between three school kids: the young Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson) and Simon (Jason Cadieux), plus Simon’s lover, Vallier (Danny Gilmore). Turns out that Bilodeau, once Simon’s best friend, became miffed when Simon transferred his affections to the angelic-looking Vallier, finally taking his revenge with tragic consequences.
As the back story unfolds, the movie occasionally crosscuts to the present as the adult Simon tries to force Bilodeau to admit to what he did. When the whole tragedy has unspooled, a coda in the prison wraps up the circle of revenge.
Aside from the pic’s structure, which mixes performance theater with film techniques in an impressively fluid way, the main story is a web of conflicting passions. Most complex is the young Simon, an arrogant, sexually confused youth who’s regularly beaten by his father and who finally confesses his deepseated love for Vallier only after the latter has made very public his own desires.
There’s enough material in this skein alone — repressed sexuality in period Quebec — for a powerful pic, but Bouchard’s original gooses it up with camp touches that tend to get in the way of, rather than enhance, the main dramatic line. Chief among these conceits is having all roles played by men, varying from the ultra-realistic (Brent Carver as Vallier’s mom) to glorified drag-show acts (Alexander Chapman’s black countess). By setting the story in an all-male universe, the kids’ passions are, if anything, made to seem less scandalous.
Despite these basic flaws, Greyson turns in some impressive sequences in tandem with Sandra Kybartas’ production design and Daniel Jobin’s lensing, both of which find different visual styles for the two time layers. Greyson’s skill in moving between fantasy, wish-fulfillment, hard realism and period drama is also notable, even if, by pic’s end, the dramatic payoff is not as strong as it could have been if he’d cleared away some of the original’s foliage.
Though Carver is top-billed, his role is relatively small and low-key. standout performance comes from newcomer Cadieux (“Iron Eagle IV”) as the younger Simon, with a performance of contained force from Pallascio as the elder con. (However, the fact that the two actors look nothing alike, and the older Simon has since gained a French accent, is a further curious blip on the production.)
Tech credits are all good, and the movie as a whole hardly marks time during its trim 92 minutes.