This doesn't happen often: You read about a movie's premiere at Cannes during the week, then you get to see it on TV on the weekend.
Behind the Candelabra (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) is many things. In the larger context, it is the triumph of television over movies. Although unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival with much fanfare and attention for its stars and director, it's made for TV. It's one of those tipping-point productions that conveys, emphatically, that television is now the place where deep storytelling resides.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Contagion), the movie is also a razor-sharp, often searing portrait of a May-December relationship and a dark journey to that place where romance morphs into malice. It's about gay men living a hidden life. It's about narcissism. It's about power. And, although set in the most camp environment – Liberace's Las Vegas – there isn't much jollity. This is about pain.
The movie, which has a sober chilliness in visuals and tone, opens in the mid-1970s, when Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young man from a foster home who gazes with wide-eyed, naive wonder at the world, is picked up at a bar by Bob Black (Scott Bakula). Bob charms Scott by taking him to Vegas to see his pal Liberace (Michael Douglas) perform. Backstage, Liberace meets Scott and is not so much smitten as he is voraciously interested. Spotting a lonely guy who has few real ties to family or friends, he offers Thorson a job as his assistant. The two are also, and immediately, passionate lovers.
While the camera lingers long on the tacky fabulousness of Liberace's clothes, home and cars, there is much less implied humour than you might expect about the cheesiness of it all. What unfolds is a cold look at the camouflage of gaudiness flaunted in the hot desert town. Under the ostentatious vulgarity and elaborate good manners, Liberace is a vicious predator, concerned only with maintaining his fame and hiding his sexuality.
Scott is aware that he isn't Liberace's first young lover-employee. One has departed just before him. And he's aware that eventually he will be dumped and replaced by someone younger and cuter. And yet, he hangs on, happily accepting the gifts and the drugs, and ignoring the obvious contempt of Liberace's business entourage. (Dan Aykroyd is superb as manager Seymour Heller.) This is a meditation on how the public willingly accepts the most extraordinarily contrived image of celebrities even as it simultaneously knows that sordidness exists behind the persona.
In fact, as much as Behind the Candelabra is about an intense gay love affair, it is about celebrity and show business itself. Soderbergh and writer Richard LaGravenese pay much attention to Liberace's reliance on plastic surgery for himself and his lovers. The surgery scenes are difficult to watch and, while Douglas's Liberace slowly emerges as a horrendous manipulator, Rob Lowe's character, a hideously tight-faced plastic surgeon, is the creepiest figure in the movie.
Both Damon and Douglas are great. Douglas in particular gives a robust, sustained and finely nuanced performance as a monster who manages to control vast subterfuge about his life and career – until that is, one young lover bites back. Behind the Candelabra isn't so much fun as it is fierce, and a fiercely good example of where HBO has taken contemporary storytelling.
Also airing this weekend
Arrested Development arrives, rebooted, on Netflix on Sunday. After a seven-year absence, the cult comedy about the rich and crazy ("dysfunctional" is too mild a word) Bluth family is back with 15 new episodes that will be released all at once. If you're not part of the cult, be aware that the central story is about what happens to the Bluths when dad (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for shady accounting practices; the family members are suddenly not so rich, but are still ignorant about life. The format for the new episodes is, apparently, one that has each segment catch up with a Bluth family member, in order to explore what has transpired in the last seven years.
Girl Model (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m., on The Passionate Eye) is a repeat, but a must-see if you've missed it. An unflinching look at the traffic in teenage girls from Russia to Japan for modelling assignments, it's heartbreaking. The grim opening scene, with young girls aged 13 to 15 auditioning in a grubby hall in a town in Siberia, sets the tone. This is an icy examination of exploitation.