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Que(e)ries: It Was an Impressively Gay Cannes, But ‘Behind The Candelabra’ Ended Up Having Little To Do With That

Que(e)ries: It Was an Impressively Gay Cannes, But 'Behind The Candelabra' Ended Up Having Little To Do With That

Last night in Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is The Warmest Color” (La Vie d’Adele) made history by becoming the first film centered on a same-sex relationship to win the Palme d’Or in the festival’s 66 year history.  The film — about a lesbian romance between two French
teenagers (Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos) — received a lot of attention during the course of the fest, for both being a favorite among critics and for the fact that it features some very graphic sex (there’s an explicit six-minute sex scene between actresses that got a lot of attention in particular).

Most people seemed to applaud the film’s Palme win, both with regard to it being incredibly deserving, and to the fact that it finally gave Cannes’ top prize to some queer content (in this writer’s opinion it should have happened already in 1997, with Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together”). But there were a few other dialogues going on as well. One asking whether the film could have succeeded as much as it did if it featured two men instead of two women, and the other suggesting its Palme win was a politically motivated response to the anti-gay protesting simultaneously occurring in Paris (where 150,000+ people were protesting the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in France).

I’d perhaps naively like to believe that Steven Spielberg and company would have given the Palme to “Blue” if it traded Seydoux and Exarchopoulos for two boys, and that they awarded the film the Palme with no political motivations. However, I can’t really argue either. I haven’t seen “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” and wasn’t actually at the Cannes Film Festival.

I certainly expected to miss out on a lot of great films by not attending this year’s edition, but I didn’t expect to miss out on witnessing what ended up clearly being a banner year for LGBT-themed cinema at Cannes. So much so that “Blue Is The Warmest Color” — despite winning the top prize overall — did not win the Queer Palm, the award handed out to the festival’s best queer film. That award went to Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger By The Lake,” an Un Certain Regard selection that also won that program’s best director award.

Like “Blue,” “Stranger” is both French and features very graphic and explicit sex scenes, this time indeed of the man-on-man variety. The psychological thriller follows a young man who finds himself in a sexual relationship with a man who may or may not be a killer. It sounds amazing (and like “Blue,” I heard countless great things), but again — I haven’t seen it. Nor have seen yet another French film with LGBT content to win a major prize at the fest: Guillaume Gallienne’s “Me, Myself and Mom.” Clearly much lighter (and less sexy) than the aforementioned, it’s based on Gallienne’s own upbringing, growing up as a female-identified boy who everyone thinks is gay (Screen called it “something of a one-man La Cage aux Folles”).

So after 11 days of reading in awe about this trio of French films, anticipating they will all be among the first films I run to when they likely have their North American premieres at TIFF this fall, I finally got to have my own little dose of Cannes Film Festival’s gay content: Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind The Candelabra,” the only LGBT film that screened at Cannes that didn’t seem to win an award, and the only one I can now speak honestly about.

I’ll admit I had reasonably high expectations going in. “Candelabra” got pretty decent reviews (including here at Indiewire), with most heralding the performances of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (as Liberace and his long-time lover Scott Thorson) and some even suggesting it was not only better than most films on HBO, but most films playing in theaters.   I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over in the way I’ll expect to be when I see “Blue” and “Stranger” soon enough. But I was certainly expecting to enjoy myself and feel like I got a little real-time piece of Cannes’ big queer year. Instead, though, I was surprised to find myself incredibly bored with what mostly felt like a vapid, conventional biopic that — despite indeed having great performances — was definitely below-average by the standards of Cannes, HBO or current theatrical releases.

As you likely know by now (or saw last night), “Behind The Candelabra” depicts the secret (at least to the public) relationship between Liberace and Thorson over about a decade. They meet in 1977, when Bob Black (Scott Bakula) finds the young Thorson at a gay bar and brings him to one of Liberace’s shows. Afterwards, he takes Thorson backstage to meet Liberace, who is immediately smitten (and who wouldn’t be, the already handsome 43 year old Damon impressively looks like a baby faced 25 year old in the film’s early scenes). Soon enough, Thorson is hired on as Liberace’s “secretary,” and the two begin an incredibly creepy romantic and sexual relationship wherein — among other things — Thorson is requested to have plastic surgery to begin looking more like Liberace (Rob Lowe plays the plastic surgeon and is by far the best thing about the movie).

So much is crammed into the film’s 120 minutes. It skims a whole boat load of issues without really getting into depth with any of them: Vanity, aging, open relationships, celebrity, the politics of being top vs. being a 
bottom, greed, internalized homophobia, drug addiction, closeting, daddy
issues, AIDS… “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” was Liberace’s famous line. Here that’s far from the case.

I’m inclined to blame the screenplay more than anything else. Richard LaGravenese brings the same unimaginative cookie-cutter sensibility to “Candelabra” as he did with his feature films “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” “Freedom Writers” and “P.S. I Love You” (to his credit, he also penned “The Ref” and “A Little Princess,” both exceptionally written films). In the end, he takes this rather remarkable tale of Liberace and Thorson and turns it into a same old story of the rises and falls of success and the dangers of greed, taking very little narrative risks.  Soderbergh’s recent “Magic Mike” dealt with these same themes, but did so in a considerably more inventive manner thanks in part to Reid Carolin’s far superior screenplay. 

Don’t get me wrong, the film is by no means a disaster. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon both do what they can with the roles,
having a few truly exceptional moments amidst performances that generally seem
like (mostly successful) battles to bring dimension to the caricatures each actor has been dealt with on the page. And there’s plenty of nice things to say about the film’s production design and costumes and makeup — all of it immaculate and impressive.

The film is also not at all toned down in terms of the gay content. Soderbergh doesn’t hold back with the sexual images of Liberace and Thorson’s bizarro relationship (though he also tries to get us to buy this relationship romantically, something I simply couldn’t). But we’ve thankfully gotten to a point where the latter should pretty much be expected and definitely not applauded, at least from the likes of Steven Soderbergh, HBO and/or Cannes. I would have quite shocked to find myself offended by the film toning down the gay. But there’s nothing particularly offensive about
“Behind The Candelabra,” though there’s nothing really interesting about it either (I suppose considering the pedigree, this is offensive in itself).   Which is why I’m glad it took a backseat to the likes of “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and “Stranger By The Lake” in terms of the celebrated queer content at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Now I just need to actually see those films to find out exactly why…

Que(e)ries” is a column by Indiewire Senior Writer Peter Knegt. Follow him on Twitter.

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