Lilies is the type of film that sets up conventions only to explode them. In 1952 Bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin) visits a Quebec penitentiary ostensibly to hear the confession of a dying inmate, Simon (Aubert Pallascio). But the confessional becomes a kind of prison for the bishop, who is forced to confront his own deeply submerged sins.
Simon, quite healthy and still fueled by indignant rage, has summoned Bishop Bilodeau to be the all-important audience of one for a play performed by his fellow inmates. This production recounts the 40-year-old events that led to Simon's imprisonment and implicates the bishop himself in the crime.
In 1912 Simon (Jason Cadieux) is a handsome working-class boy eager to escape provincial northern Quebec. He hesitantly falls in love with another student at his all-boys Catholic school, Vallier (Danny Gilmore), an impoverished French aristocrat who has inherited a penchant for elated romanticism from his mother, the Countess de Tilly (Brent Carver).
Watching from the sidelines is the spiteful, sanctimonious Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson), who jealously condemns Vallier and later the wealthy Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), a guest at the nearby luxury hotel who unwisely eyes Simon as her future husband.
Director John Greyson (Zero Patience) begins by creating a stagelike set in the prison, but then boldly opens up the film, fantastically transporting the characters into the rugged Quebec landscape and regal architecture of the hotel and school. Greyson seamlessly shifts back and forth between the bare-bones prison stage and the intoxicatingly beautiful Quebec of their collective memories, transforming Lilies from a tale of confinement to one about the expansive powers of the imagination.
Playwright-screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard effectively employs the old theatrical convention of having both female and male roles played by men, and tinges his bitter story of religious and emotional hypocrisy with some of Jean Genet's hothouse romanticism.
Although the story pivots around the selfishness and sacrifice of teenage boys, the heart of Lilies belongs to Brent Carver's lovely countess. Carver conveys a gentle femininity that's the antithesis of a brash drag queen. His countess is a rarefied aesthete and deluded savant, the kind of person who can understand the truth and still look beyond it.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.