Wolfe Video, 1996

John Greyson

Michel-Marc Bouchard,
from his play

Starring: Brent Carver, Marcel Sabourn, Aubert Pallascio, Jason Cadieux, Matthew Ferguson, Remy Girard, Gary Farmer

Rated R, 96 minutes

The Hanging Garden
MGM Video, 1997

Thom Fitzgerald

Ian Parsons, Peter MacNeill, Troy Veinotte, Kerry Fox, Mark Austin

Rated R, 91 minutes

Remembrance of Things Past
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, November, 1999


Hollywood films tend to be too literal; the same tired formulas are rehashed ad nauseum and filmmakers are afraid to try anything new which might challenge their audience. One only needs to look at foreign and independent cinema to see how to break away from conventional molds. Or, in this case, our northern neighbors. Two Canadian directors address the agonies of gay adolescence through evocatively stylized, almost surreal, films.

In Lilies, an adaptation by playwright Michel Mare Bouehard of his play, Les Feluettes, director John Greyson establishes a tragedy of operatic proportions in a low prison setting ala Jean Genet. The result is a poetic film which rejects realism, favoring a more lyrical and flamboyantly theatrical style. And, despite its artistic flourishes, it's entertaining as hell.

It's 1952. Bishop Bilodeau, played by Marcel Sabourin, visits a Quebec prison to hear a dying man's confession. Albert Pallascio is Simon, a bitter old man who turns the tables on the bishop by confessing that he is about to commit "the sin of revenge." Simon's fellow inmates then take the bishop prisoner and perform a play for their captive audience of one. The drama's subject is a shocking episode from Bilodeau's own youth in 1912 which led to Simon's incarceration. The bishop is at first appalled, and then saddened by the play. Roles are reversed when Bilodeau is forced to make a confession and then ask the elderly Simon's forgiveness.

In the play, which catches the conscience of the king, the women's parts are performed out of necessity by the inmates in drag. Then the play opens up. The story flows seamlessly between scenes performed in the prison chapel and ones which are filmed in the real world as if they were flashbacks. The prisoners play the same parts in both settings.

The first tableau is a staging of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. The scene is a rehearsal for a school play. The young Simon, played by Jason Cadiuex, is a beautiful youth who is tied to a tree and kissed by his best friend, Vallier. Their passion is interrupted by the young Bilodeau, a boy headed for the seminary. He preaches about sin while secretly lusting after Simon because he is "as beautiful as a saint."

Vallier's mad mother, the Countess de Tilly, (played to perfection by Brent Carver), is enthralled by her son's love for Simon. When she stupidly speaks of their trysts to Simon's father, he responds by whipping his son senselessly. This already explosive situation escalates when Lydie-Anne, a French aristocrat, arrives in a hot air balloon and takes a shine to Simon. Still reeling from his beating, Simon decides that it's "time to think about girls." He is quickly swept away by the exotic French woman, to the sorrow of Vallier. Bilodeau, meanwhile, prays to God that "the Babylonian" will not take Simon away from him.

This is a film of rare beauty and passion which throws conventions of realism out the window. Its stylistic nature works because the acting is so strong that it matters little whether the setting is realistic or feigned. The use of male actors in female roles might seem anachronistic to some but this is a technique which is common in the theatre even though it rarely happens in movies. The effect is a little jarring at first - and it was to some critics - but an open-minded viewer will quickly become used to it.

The actors play the women with subtlety and grace, rather than as screaming queens. The legendary Brent Carver is especially convincing as the mad Countess who thinks the shack on the lake, where she lives with her son Vallier, is really a manor house on the Mediterranean. His gait is delicate and feminine, and his acting a delight. Lydie-Anne is played by a man of color named Alexander Chapman who looks fabulous in drag. The exotic nature of this visiting French woman is amplified by the screen presence of a virile black man in the role.

Lilies plays freely with the theme of religious hypocrisy. The young Bilodeau is a parody of every self righteous fire-and-brimstone preacher that has ever plagued fiction. He rages about sin but gazes longingly on Simon's nude body while he bathes by the lake. It is appropriate that the boys are first seen rehearsing a play about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, which has to be one of the most homoerotic images in all of Christian art. When Bilodeau interrupts the rehearsal by preaching about Sodom and Gomorrah, Vallier and Simon tie him to the tree. Simon tries to kiss Bilodeau, giving him a "taste of hell," as the mortified lad screams "I don't want to be sick like you." Bilodeau is yet another in a long line of pious homophobes who is unable to reconcile his own sexual desires.

The photography in Lilies is beautiful. Scenes shift between settings through clever uses of sound effects and slides projected on a screen. Flames, a symbol of passion, lust and destruction, are prevalent as Simon strikes a match as each new act of the play begins. Visual symbols abound, such as the cages and fences which surround the prison chapel. The elderly Simon's face is first seen through a grate in the confessional. A climactic love scene between Simon and Vallier takes place in a large tub in the center of the prison stage while leaves fall from above on the doomed lovers.

Most plays which celebrate their theatricality usually do not translate well to the screen. For example, on stage Equus featured a chorus of men wearing wire masks to represent the horses. In the film version, this device was eliminated to comply with the standards of realism. The costumed horses would have been out of place, but everything that made the play so unique was lost in the translation. Lilies manages the almost impossible feat of integrating this theatricality into the language of cinema. I highly recommend this amazing film.

Reviewer's note, 2007: John Grayson is also the director of Zero Patience (1993) and Proteus (2003). He also directed four installments of Showtime's Queer as Folk, including the surreal episode where Emmet's chatroom screen name comes to life.

Brent Carver, who beautifully embodied the delightfully mad Countess, is a regular at Stratford and won a Tony for Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway. Also among his many credits, he played David in the Toronto stage production of Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains And The True Nature Of Love (filmed by Denys Arcand as Love And Human Remains. Matthew Ferguson (the young Bilodeau) played Kane in Love And Human Remains.


Distinct stylization is also used to great effect in writer/director Thom Fitzgerald's 1997 film, The Hanging Garden.

After a ten year absence, a prodigal son returns home to attend his sister's wedding. When they last saw Sweet William, he was a 350 pound adolescent with zero self esteem. William, played by Chris Leavins, has grown into a slim, attractive and confident man who lives happily with another man. If only the rest of his family was as well adjusted as he. One look at them and it is immediately apparent why he ran away from home. The wedding provides a framing story for an extended flashback in which William is an abused teen.

We see his father, Whiskey Mac, a drunk who often hits the boy. William's grandmother is losing her mind and is kept upstairs in the attic. His mother, Iris, longs for escape but tries valiantly to keep her family together. William is in love with his sister Rosemary's boyfriend, Fletcher. A late night rendezvous in the garden between William and Fletcher is witnessed by the mad grandmother, who wakes the household with her screams. William's mother tries to "save" her son by paying a local woman to have sex with him. William is so humiliated by the experience, and then by Fletcher's rejection, that he attempts suicide by hanging himself in his father's garden.

Returning home for Rosemary's wedding awakens old ghosts. For starters, being newly married doesn't stop the groom, Fletcher, from flirting with his old friend. If this isn't enough, William also discovers a young sister named Violet who hadn't yet been born when he left home. Because she is very tomboy-ish, William first mistakes Violet for a boy. Her parentage is the subject of a later plot twist. His father still drinks, his grandmother has grown even more senile and the almost-blind family dog walks into walls.

The homecoming turns nightmarish when he spies his formerly obese self standing amongst the guests. While he speaks to his mother in the kitchen, a young boy walks in and begins binge-eating at the table. When William takes a stroll through the garden, he sees his former self hanging from a tree. Strangely enough, the rest of the family is plagued by this vision as well, forever reminding them of their collective guilt as they are forced to face the horror of it. This strange visual contradiction of time frames collide with the force of a passing hurricane in The Hanging Garden.

Without a doubt, The Hanging Garden features one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on celluloid. Their names, each one a flower from the garden, adds to the film's surreal nature. The quirky characters help to keep The Hanging Garden from being a complete downer as they add a sense of the absurd into the otherwise depressing plot. Troy Veinotte shines as the adolescent William. While it is easy for an audience to identify with an attractive leading man, the overweight William is an unforgettable character who evokes pity instead of being the butt of rude fat jokes. The entire cast is to be commended for making their characters fully rounded personalities rather than cardboard caricatures. Peter MacNeill is especially effective as the brutish father, as is Seana McKenna as his long suffering wife. Fans of the gay Celtic fiddler Ashley MacIsaac will be interested to know that he provides much of the film's soundtrack and that he also appears as a musician at the wedding.

The new crop of gay independents, Edge of Seventeen and Get Real for example, have all been enjoyable and important films in that they can teach valuable lessons to teens about accepting those are different from the "norm." But Lilies and The Hanging Garden are terrific examples of what happens when a gifted artist gets his or her hands on a movie camera. Both films can both be rented at Mondo Video at 1109 Elmwood Avenue, and Lilies can also be rented at Rainbow Pride, located in Buddies at 31 Johnson Park.

More On John Grayson
Zero Patience

More On Thom Fitzgerald:

More On Brent Carver:
Interview With Brad Fraser, 2004

Peter MacNeill also appears in:
Queer As Folk

Gary Farmer also appears in:



Reviewer's note, 2007: Interjecting a bit of autobiography and historical context here. In many of my older reviews there are references to these films being unavailable at Blockbuster Video. Times have changed, but in the 90s, that was the case. They were a "family store." Blockbuster's policy back then (since changed) of not carrying NC-17 or unrated films forced many filmmakers to emasculate their films to get an R rating so Blockbuster "the family store" would carry it. .I usually reported if the films were available for rent at Buffalo's two funkiest video stores - Mondo Video, which was owned by the film critic from Artvoice Magazine, M. Faust, and was the place to go to get the hard to find titles - and Rainbow Pride, a gay gift shop run by Frank Ball; he also rented videos. For years, his store was the front room in a popular gay bar, Buddies.

Anyway, when I wrote this review you could not find titles like these at Blockbuster. And I often ranted about it. I've left them in these reviews as I put them online because they are a kind of time capsule. Because early in the millennium there was a changing of the guard at Blockbuster. You could rent Queer as Folk there now! Their old policy of no gay films and no unrated films was gone, finished. And that was good news for filmmakers and film lovers everywhere. I even ended one of my columns with a public service announcement that Blockbuster changed its policies and now carried gay films. I'm not being coerced into writing this, I'm just being fair because that was a big turnaround. Of course it was also around the time I discovered and saw that I could rent almost anything from them. Foreign films, independents and of course queer cinema. This note is just to explain how times have changed (for the better) and it is much easier to find queer titles now, whether for rent or for sale. The internet of course got us out of the dark ages too.