Cannes 2013, Day Six: Michael Douglas plays Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s swan song, Behind The Candelabra

Cannes 2013, Day Six: Michael Douglas plays Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s swan song, Behind The Candelabra

Sometimes I forget that prizes are handed out at the end of this festival. It’s always difficult to guess what a given year’s jury will find worthy, especially when it comes to the acting awards—Cannes strongly encourages a share-the-wealth approach, so often Best Actor or Actress will really be a compromise decision regarding a movie that didn’t have enough support to win something bigger. (For the lowdown on how this works, seek out William Goldman’s invaluable book Hype & Glory.) I hadn’t thought about Actor candidates until this morning, and now that I look back over the films that have screened so far, there appear to be quite a few: Ali Mosaffa in The Past; Masaharu Fukuyama in Like Father, Like Son; Jan Bivjoet in/as Borgman; Oscar Isaac in Inside Llweyn Davis; for some tastes, perhaps, even those temperamentally opposed hams Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric in Jimmy P. The frontrunner, though, has to be Michael Douglas’ achingly intimate portrait of Liberace in Behind The Candelabra, which had its world première this morning. (HBO will air it on Sunday.) Celebrity impersonations are automatic award magnets, so anybody playing Liberace would likely get plenty of attention, deserved or not. In this case, however, it’d be hard to argue, as Douglas digs deep beneath the flamboyant mannerisms (even as he expertly replicates them) to reveal a universal archetype of ephemeral infatuation, motivated primarily by a toxic combination of lust and fear.

Like most decent biopics nowadays, this isn’t a cradle-to-grave Wiki-summary, but a focused examination of a relatively brief period in its subject’s life. When the film begins, in 1977, Liberace has already been a superstar for decades. (Strange as it may seem now, he was once the highest-paid entertainer in the world.) Somehow, despite the fabulous outfits and singsong vocal cadence and absence of girlfriends, he’s still in the closet, but those around him trade knowing looks when he meets young hunk Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, doing his best in a role for which he’s at least 20 years too old), who’s quickly given an official position as Liberace’s secretary and an unofficial position just behind the man, if you catch my drift. That Thorson refuses to be the bottom in their relationship is just one of the many refreshingly frank details that explain why this is a TV-movie rather than a theatrical release in the U.S., and it’s those details, along with Liberace’s insanely garish lifestyle, that prevent it from seeming banal. Underneath the furs and rings, Liberace and Thorson are just like any other long-term couple in which one person eventually gets bored and moves on to the next novelty act; it’s a story that’s been told many times before, though usually the more powerful half doesn’t insist that the other get plastic surgery to make them look more alike. (As the surgeon, Rob Lowe has been made up in a way that recalls Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby screaming “What have you done to his eyes?!”) Director Steven Soderbergh exits this chapter of his career on a fairly restrained note, letting his two lead actors and production designer Howard Cummings do most of the work; the film furthers his recent obsession with bodies as transactions (it concludes with the negotiation of a financial settlement, essentially for services rendered) without appreciably deepening or expanding his ideas. This is solid work, but his decision to take a long sabbatical is probably for the best. Grade: B

Giving Douglas a run for his money, Toni Servillo plays the Marcello Mastroianni part in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a lovely but rambling excursion through moneyed Rome in the tradition of La Dolce Vita (which did well to retain its Italian title; this one should probably stick with La Grande Bellezza). An indolent journalist in late middle age who published one critically successful novella decades earlier, Servillo’s Jep Gambardella seems to exist in a continuous state of bored euphoria, attending an endless series of extravagant parties, ludicrous performance-art pieces (example: a naked, blindfolded woman charging headfirst into a concrete wall), and self-justifying salons. Only very, very gradually does it become apparent that he’s experiencing an awakening of sorts, spurred by the news that one of his first loves, who dumped him and married someone else but kept a torch burning nonetheless, has just died. Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place, Il Divo) works in an emphatic, free-associative mode unlike that of just about any other international auteur right now; the whirlwind of quick cuts and lurching camera moves that open The Great Beauty is hyperactive even by his standards. The insanity has a purpose, however—its sudden grind to a halt, like a cassette tape being eaten by rollers, is surpassingly eerie—and once the film settles down, it becomes a rollicking yet melancholy tour of a city so spectacular and historic that it paralyzes its inhabitants. This is a hard film to get a grip on, because each anecdotal scene is largely independent of those that precede and follow it, and Jep’s character arc (for lack of a less odious phrase) has been strategically buried. Plus, it runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, which is a whole lot of discursiveness. Servillo’s rueful smile serves as an anchor, though, and there are so many alternately hilarious and (yes) beautiful interludes dotting the film’s landscape that you can’t entirely begrudge its apparent aimlessness. Grade: B

On the other hand, I’m happy to begrudge the sheer uselessness of A Castle In Italy, the third film written and directed by actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. On some level, it’d be comforting to believe that she owes her success as a filmmaker entirely to her family connections—Carla Bruni, wife of France’s former President, is her sister—but her previous feature, the irritating Actresses, was selected for the New York Film Festival, and I doubt Sarkozy’s influence extends that far, so apparently some people genuinely enjoy her shrill, self-absorbed, vacuous meditations on the difficulties faced by a middle-aged actress. Her character here, Louise, is a movie star who’s taken early retirement for reasons never quite specified, which is just as well since she’s dealing with her brother’s illness (Bruni Tedeschi’s actual brother died of AIDS a few years ago; Vincere’s Filippo Timi plays his stand-in) and her wealthy but cash-poor family’s need to raise some money by auctioning off some of their vast estate. Imagine Summer Hours stripped of beauty, tenderness, grace, intelligence, and coherence, and then toss in the ever-callow Louis Garrel as an on-again, off-again love interest for good measure. I won’t be seeing Claire Denis’ new film until later tonight (check back tomorrow), but the fact that it’s been relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar, while this shallow mediocrity takes up a Competition slot, suggests that there’s something seriously awry with the festival’s selection process. I don’t always like Denis’ films, but they never feel as frivolous and disposable as this. Grade: D+

(“That reads like an F,” some of you are thinking. But I’m Mr. Bell Curve when it comes to grades and ratings; even D+ is unusually low for me. I didn’t bump it up to a C-, at least. Maybe I should adjust everything out from the center, lowering the bad grades a notch? Anyway, it’s bad, that’s the point.)


Tomorrow: The aforementioned Claire Denis picture, which sports the cheery title Bastards. Also, Nicolas Winding Refn re-teams with Ryan Gosling for Only God Forgives, and Robert Redford plays a reportedly solo and wordless role in All Is Lost, J.C Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call.