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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Canadian Film Review: Lilies (1996)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Greyson
Starring: Matthew Ferguson, Danny Gilmore, Jason Cadieux, Aubert Pallascio, Marcel Sabourin

The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

- Hamlet

Like Hamlet, John Greyson's film Lilies centers on a man determined to avenge a wrongful death, who uses a play to draw out the confession of the man responsible. Adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard's play Les Feluettes and set in a Quebec prison, this tale of love, jealousy, and revenge makes for an utterly engrossing and engaging film.

The story begins in 1952 when Bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin) is asked to visit a prisoner to hear a special confession. The prisoner is Simon Doucet (Aubert Pallascio), who grew up with Bilodeau in the same small town. Almost as soon as he arrives, Bilodeau realizes that all is not as it appears and that he has been lured to the prison under false pretences. The confession is not meant to be Doucet's but his own and it will be elicited through a play Doucet has written which will be performed by the other prisoners.

The play is set in 1912 and involves the relationship between Doucet (played in the play by Matthew Ferguson) and a young man named Vallier (Danny Gilmore). Young Bilodeau (Jason Cadieux) is jealous of their relationship because he wants Doucet, whom he regards as a saint, for himself but the bond between Doucet and Vallier is too strong to be broken. Except, perhaps, by Doucet's father and his own internalized homophobia. After meeting Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), a French Baroness, Doucet attempts to lead a "normal" life by courting her and becoming engaged. His love for Vallier remains strong, however, and eventually he's forced to admit that he can't live a lie and he and Vallier make plans to run away together. But before they can get away tragedy strikes and events unfold in such a way that it leads to Doucet's imprisonment.

All of the roles in the film are played by men, which can seem jarring at first but quickly comes to feel natural with the way that the story unfolds. It also adds new dimension to one of the story's primary themes, which is the idea of gender/sexuality as performance. Doucet thinks he can play against his nature, an impossibility which is only highlighted by the fact of Chapman playing Lydie-Anne and also by the way that the characters relate to each other. Doucet is trying to play the role of the traditional heterosexual male but he's chosen a partner who is on a higher social and economic plane, facts which ultimately subvert a traditional male-female power dynamic. Add in the fact that Lydie-Anne is the sexual aggressor and it becomes increasingly clear that Doucet occupies a submissive role in the relationship, further undermining the idea that when he's with Lydie-Anne he's fulfilling society's idea of what real masculinity is.

In terms of the staging of the play within the film, Greyson moves easily back and forth between a straight up, stripped down stage version on the prison floor and scenes shot in realistic settings with elaborate sets and costumes. Again, this can be a bit jarring at first but Greyson handles the shifts in such a masterful way that by the end you don't even really notice, it just becomes a part of the ebb and flow of the story.

Lilies would go on to win 4 of the 14 Genies for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. Greyson was nominated for Best Director and Ferguson, Gilmore and Cadieux all received Best Actor nominations while Chapman was singled out for a Supporting Actor nod. Had it been up to me, Brent Carver also would have received a Supporting nomination for his performance as Vallier's mentally unstable (but intensely supportive) mother, the Countess de Tilly. While all the actors are excellent, it was Carver's performance which resonated the most for me.

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