‘TV Movies’ have played Cannes before and they will no doubt play here again, particularly as the line continue to blur between the two mediums and American television continues to generate so much incredible work, and Behind the Candelabra is a fine choice for a festival which Soderbergh has such an important history with.
If Steven Soderbergh does indeed give up filmmaking and begins working on television instead, and Behind the Candelabra is anything to go by, the only thing that will be missed will be the chance to see his work on a cinema screen. Behind the Candelabra is as much a film as any other I have seen at Cannes this year. The only difference perhaps is that it is the best that I have seen so far.
Beginning with the meeting of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and Liberace (Michael Douglas), introduced by a long-haired moustached Scott Bakula as Bob Black, the film chronicles the pair’s relationship, including its collapse and Liberace’s – or Lee as he likes to be called off-stage – death in 1986 of an AIDS related illness. In this raw portrait we see Scott and Liberace each at their most ugly and their most fabulous, with no compromise seemingly made in portraying a relationship filled with contradictions and overlapping and conflicting motivations.
After a relatively short time with Liberace Scott moves from his home in Los Angeles and his job as an animal trainer to Liberace’s palace in Las Vegas, where he lives until their breakup as Liberace’s “secretary”, his “lover”, his “son” and much more. Liberace first takes to calling Scott his “baby boy”, a name he shares with one of Liberace’s poodles, and it is clear that Scott could just be another in a series of boyfriends, but there is something deeper here. When they finally split and Scott is sat in front of lawyers he struggles to describe their relationship, to justify it somehow, but no explanation is required for the audience. We have just seen Soderbergh, working from a script by Richard LaGraveness based on a book penned by Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, take us inside their world, to live with them and understand the choices they have made, the degree to which they love each other but also the toxic nature of their co-dependancy.
With humour peppering the film throughout, Rob Lowe’s highly amusing turn as Dr. Jack Starz providing a number of laugh out loud moments along with a number of zingers from Liberace, much of the sadness in the film creeps up on you but an underlying melancholy pervades. Ending with an imagined performance by Liberace and a series of title cards that fill in some of the blanks regarding the final act in Liberace’s life one experiences a similar emotional carthasis to Scott at Liberace’s funeral and we too share his sadness and wonder.
Despite the two hour running time the film feels like an epic biopic, with so much detail, humour and emotion crammed in. Using his regular aliases of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard Soderbergh also acts as the cinematographer and editor on the film and whilst it may be a great loss to film to not see Soderbergh direct again, his retiring from working as a cinematographer and editor will also be a significant loss. Behind the Candelabra is exquisitely made, with superbly crafted cinematography capturing the excess that defines the beautiful production design. If this is indeed Soderbergh’s final film he’s going out on an absolute high but if, as many suspect, he continues to make films, even if they are on television, this is further evidence that the quality of his work could continue at a very high standard.