Steven Soderbergh's 'Too-Gay' Liberace Movie Has Arrived at Cannes

Michael Douglas plays Liberace and Matt Damon plays his longtime lover in Behind the Candelabra, which lives up to its buzz.
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Sometimes at Cannes, certain films in competition go almost unnoticed, overshadowed by a festival scandal or lost in the hype surrounding another movie in the line-up.

Such was the fate of Valéria Bruni Tedeschi's Un chateau en Italie (A Castle in Italy), the third French film in the main slate (after Ozon's Jeune et jolie and Desplechin's Jimmy P.) and the only one made by a woman. The movie is fine: an ambitious, capably directed autobiographical chronicle of a wealthy French-Italian family facing financial decline. It's by turns enlivened and bogged down by the kind of furious narcissism that is a trademark of French ensemble/relationship/family dramas.

Wispy-voiced writer-director Bruni Tedeschi, the sister of former French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, stars in the film alongside her former real-life love, the dashingly spaced-out Louis Garrel, and mother Marisa Bruni Tedeschi. But not even the promise of juicy tidbits from the private life of one of France's most famous families could compete with the prospect of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas locking lips—and horns—in fact-based gay romance Behind the Candelabra, U.S. director Steven Soderbergh's final film (if he sticks to his word about retiring, which I hope he doesn't).

The movie, which screened early Tuesday morning before an enthusiastic press, traces the tumultuous relationship between flamboyant Vegas pianist Liberace (Douglas) and one of his much younger boyfriends, Scott Thorson (Damon). Soderbergh, with his typically seamless camerawork, punchy editing, and pleasure in recreating kitschy 1970s and '80s clothes and décor without ever veering into kitsch himself, frames the material as a sort of same-sex Sunset Boulevard: Douglas plays the vampiric Norma Desmond role to Damon's more vulnerable version of William Holden's Joe Gillis.

The love story evolves in a rather standard way, with the aging Liberace scooping up parentless beefcake Thorson to be his new trophy boy and showering him with sexual, emotional and material attention before they slip into the usual cycle of distance, drugs, jealousy, and deception.

What gives their bond a real shudder of dysfunction is the perverse extent to which Liberace's own narcissistic impulses and implicit fear of death drive and shape the relationship. In an effort to mold Thorson into a more accurate reflection of himself, Liberace sends him to a plastic surgeon (played by a hilarious Rob Lowe), who redoes the younger man's face to resemble his mentor's. Liberace also talks of legally adopting Thorson, citing his long-simmering desire to be a father.

I wish Soderbergh had occasionally slowed down to linger on the hints of horror in the romance. Behind the Candelabra, like much of the director's work, is witty, briskly paced and consistently entertaining, but it never truly delves into the darker implications of the bond it explores. Ever the prodigiously skilled craftsman, Soderbergh does a bang-up job without necessarily pushing himself.

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Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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