Early Québécois cinematic history is dominated by films in which the Church, in the guise of a parish priest or a bishop, serves as a moral touchstone for the action. In the 1960s and 70s, filmmakers began to reflect widespread societal rejection of the centuries-old control held by the Catholic Church over the daily lives of Québécois. Many movies of this era purposely made no reference to the Church or its precepts, as if it were now socially irrelevant; other movies attacked or satirized the role of the Church as a retrograde or malign influence. It is this decades-long aesthetic struggle to put a powerful social institution in its rightful context that allows Director John Greyson to find narrative balance in Lilies (1996).
Based on Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, “Les Feluettes, ou la répétition d’un drame romantique,” Lilies presents the viewer with a play within a film. Brought to a prison purportedly to hear the confession of a convicted killer, a priest is trapped into watching the re-enactment of his own complicity in a crime that took place forty years before. The priest is Bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin), who may be a prince of the Church now, but is revealed in the play to have been a confused and vengeful boy. It is not the Church that is on trial in this film; it is the man. Lilies accepts the social role of the Church in Québec a century ago solely as the backdrop to the human drama of a homosexual attraction between two young men in a small town.
The person who has staged the re-creation of those long ago events is Simon (Aubert Pallascio), who has been convicted of the death of his lover, Vallier (Danny Gilmore). The actors are all fellow inmates, which is why all the major female roles are played by men. Their ability to invite and then “kidnap” a bishop has been orchestrated by the prison chaplain (Ian D. Clark), who believes he is doing the right thing. In fact, the chaplain is a narrative continuation of a character from Simon and Bilodeau’s youth. Father St. Michel (also played by Clark) is a romantic who encourages the schoolboys to put on a religious play in which the young Simon (Jason Cidieux) and Vallier are cast in roles with homoerotic overtones. It is their involvement in this play that first creates their attraction to one another and engenders the jealousy of young Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson).
Bilodeau has always loved and idolized Simon. The arrival in the small town of Roberval of the sophisticated Vallier, who has come all the way from Paris with his mother, the Countess (Brent Carver), destroys Bilodeau’s idealistic dreams of a future in the seminary with Simon. He watches with dismay, and then with growing envy and malice, how Simon and Vallier are magnetically drawn to one another. When Simon becomes aware of how dangerous this love could be, he reluctantly turns his attention to another noble Parisian, the beautiful Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman). Determined to show that he can live a normal life, he plans a marriage with Lydie-Anne, followed by departure from Roberval. Simon’s inner turmoil drives him to set a number of fires in the area during the summer, symbolically fanning the flames of the passions that surround the main characters.
For her part, Lydie-Anne understands that there is an attraction between Simon and Vallier. At her engagement party she can’t resist telling the Countess that her errant husband is now comfortably ensconced with a new “wife” and children in Paris and has no intention of returning to Roberval to rejoin his wife and son. The Countess, who has been slowly going mad maintaining the fiction of her husband’s return to his “estate” in Québec, decides that she will “sail” the next day for Paris. By this she means that she will ask her son to kill her and leave for Paris himself. Lyide-Anne’s spiteful action has set in train the tragic events that culminate in Vallier’s death and Simon’s imprisonment and Bilodeau’s responsibility for both.
As the now aged Bilodeau sits, transfixed by the play that unfolds before him, he is gradually drawn in to a swirl of memory. At one point, he points out to Simon that the real Vallier was heavier set than the actor playing him. Finally, he begs Simon for forgiveness, but is refused and left to deal with his own guilt.
It is sometimes difficult to meld flashback with contemporary events, but the device of a play within a play helps Greyson to make the transitions fluid and believable. As the narrative slides from 1952 to 1912 and back again, the actors provide a constant reference point: the faces of the characters dressed in costumes from forty years before are the faces of the inmates, sometimes in costume, sometimes in grey coveralls, who change the sets and surround Bilodeau in the prison chapel. The voices of the people he knew as a boy are the voices of the inmates who challenge him now. The result is a seamless thread of time and action that is simply stunning.
Lilies was nominated for and won 22 awards at film festivals around the world. In 1996, it won five Genies for Art Direction and Production Design, Costume Design, Overall Sound, and Best Motion Picture, as well as Best Canadian Film at the Montreal World Film Festival.