This is a very different “gay” film. Having watched it twice now, I cannot help thinking that there is some kind of political subtext going on but I don’t know enough about Quebec history and culture to be able to figure out what it might be. Then again, I may simply be imagining that there is more to Lilies than comes off the screen. At any rate, I think it is an example of wonderful filmmaking.
The story begins in 1952 as the local bishop arrives at a prison to hear the confession of a dying inmate, a man that His Excellency apparently knows from the distant past. It soon becomes clear that this will not be a routine confession as the bishop finds himself confined to the confessional and forced to watch a drama enacted by the fellow inmates of the penitent.
The drama, in which all the characters are played by the inmates, and are all therefore played by males, portrays events in the lives of three Quebecois adolescents that occurred in 1912. It begins with the rehearsal of a school play, “The Death of St. Sebastian,” in which the role of the nearly naked, about-to-be-martyred saint is played by a youthful version of the penitent, Simon. Sebastian’s friend, who has been ordered by Caesar to kill him, is played by Simon’s classmate Vallier, a young man who is clearly in love with Simon. Into this highly erotic scene enter the young Bilodeau, who professes to be disgusted by this display of perversion but who is actually also in love with Simon. Simon prefers Vallier. He mocks Bilodeau’s scorn by tying him up and kissing him passionately.
The drama proceeds, seamlessly moving between the setting of the prison chapel and scenes in flashback to the village where the real-life drama took place 40 years before. Vallier’s mother, an impoverished French countess (gorgeously portrayed by Brent Carver), mentions the kiss in front of Simon’s father and the boy is beaten so severely he renounces his gay affair with Vallier and takes up with a visiting countess from Paris. It soon becomes apparent to the countess that Simon does not love her, but to preserve her dignity, the engagement is formalized and the couple plan to travel to Paris.
Meanwhile, Vallier confesses his love for Simon to his mother, who takes it upon herself to test Simon. She crashes the engagement party, followed by Vallier dressed as Caesar. Forced to choose between the countess and Vallier (in the presence of his father), Simon obeys the countess’s order to prepare for the next day’s departure for Paris. Vallier returns home defeated but finds the birthday gift his mother has rescued from the purgatory of rejected household items: an old bathtub. He strips naked and soaks in the tub, finally opening his eyes to see that his beloved has returned to him. In a touching and erotic scene the two make love in the bathtub.
Throughout all these events Bilodeau has been hovering, all the while displaying his jealousy and attempting to influence Simon to favour him. When he is finally and firmly rejected by Simon, he commits a horrendous act of murder and blames it on Simon, who of course ends up in prison for forty years.
Bilodeau becomes a priest.