BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (STEVEN SODERBERGH, USA)
The third in our series of Cannes dialogues between Adam Cook and Daniel Kasmanis on Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, which screened in Competition.
DANIEL KASMAN: The political body: Soderbergh's supposedly final film continues his run of digital features focusing on the existence and commerce of, as well as the impact on, the body in contemporary society. In Behind the Candelabra, it is in Liberace's (Michael Douglas) precise control of his public and private image in dress and look, and in the figure of Scott (Matt Damon), who becomes his lover, then boyfriend, then essentially his husband in an evolving relationship that starts nearly as prostitution and later involves plastic surgery, drugs for bodily upkeep, and, in general for both men, concerns the impact of their aging bodies on their relationship and luxury lifestyle. The bodies of this public figure (publically straight, privately gay) and of his nearly homebound “protégé” become the geography on which one can see the impact of American celebrity culture, closet homosexuality, and the ups-and-downs of a loving relationship with a large age difference.
ADAM COOK: Boyfriend, husband, and let's not forget son: the relationship's shifting nature is heartbreaking because it always seems to be determined by Liberace's fluctuating needs and desires (sex, fatherhood, consolation). Scott is whatever Liberace needs him to be, and the results are tragic: one man's life swallowed by another in a master/slave dynamic that persists perhaps even beyond the film's final frame. I love how Soderbergh hones in so closely on the two main characters with only the most minimal peripheral goings-on—in contrast to his most recent work—and, specifically on their home life. Of course, their lives together were mostly confined to home so as to avoid unwanted attention in public that could stir controversy. I felt so bad for Scott's character, and at times I understood what he saw in Liberace that was so alluring and comforting, but still, how this man would allow this to happen (the plastic surgery, the confined lifestyle, etc.) is a difficult question to answer.
KASMAN: The film posits two answers to that, one tangible and the other intangible: luxury and love. The film certainly tells us each man loved the other; whether those feelings are actually evident, or if they are held as an ambiguity, is another question. Luxury, however, is not. The film nearly looks like the Oceans movies, set as it is (and mostly limited to, as you mention) in the overdecorated, hyper-kitsch palatial mansion of Liberace. His opulent lifestyle is clearly a part of his draw for his audience, for Scott, and for our eyes to the frame. I take it you liked the film very much?
COOK: Yes, I think it sits somewhere in the middle of his last stretch of movies, above Side Effects and Haywire, below Contagion and Magic Mike. I just can't see Soderbergh as a finished filmmaker! Maybe even more so than in any other phase of his career, he is refining a particular aesthetic. This isn't a director in a holding pattern, Soderbergh is constantly looking for new ways of telling stories, new ways of using digital images to articulate characters' feelings or a film's mood. He's so exciting to watch right now, every time he makes a movie there are shots we've never seen before. I don't know if any other American filmmaker is more inventive right now with choosing where to place the camera, how to frame the image, how to use focus, etc. Thinking of Candelabra, there are images burned into my brain (more than I can say for most films we've seen here): the canted angle of Damon taking jewelry from Liberace's safe, the wide, high angle shot of him high off of cocaine nervously, frantically shifting back and forth. Magic Mike and Candelabra have some of the best subjective visual portrayals of drug use in movies.
KASMAN: It's interesting you bring up the inventiveness of Soderbergh and his decoupage in a positive light, because of me it is his biggest question mark. Not an ambiguity perse, but really just a question. Despite finding many of his recent films excellent, I can't help but be baffled by his filmmaking. I find his decoupage specifically deeply arbitrary. I have a hard time understanding, for the most part (and several of the shots you name are not what I'm talking about; those you mention are pointedly styled for an intended effect), why he chooses a given angle over another, this camera placement over that. In this way, to a degree, he reminds me of mid to late 1960s Yoshishige Yoshida: exhibiting a desire to cut to a new angle for the sake of new spatial activation, visual refreshment. Soderbergh isn't nearly as striking a compositionalist as Yoshida, however, so the arbitrariness shines through all the more. Tonally, this produces a cool, cerebral aspect to most his pictures. This, actually, is for me one of the strongest characteristics of his work, and for me the lasting effect is that many of these digital films—Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects, Che, Contagion, Behind the Candelabra—feel identical because they have the same oddly analytic decoupage to them. This is, I think, the founding characteristic that makes Soderbergh an academic filmmaker. Soderbergh films ride hard on concepts which exist in a script stage. His digital filmmaking and avant-garde (in the literal sense) workflow is like a tool he then applies to the concept. As if he arrives on set with no idea how to shoot a scene, and tries and tries again until something clicks—for him. For me, I'm not sure what's clicking. His angle selection, his decoupage is as precise and honed as Friz Lang's, but to what end I'm not sure. I usually feel like Soderbergh is interested in two things, fundamentally: the starting concept of a film, and the challenge of making images day-of, on set. The actual end result of a film is thereby of tertiary importance. My sense (again, mine and mine alone) is that the films are welcome byproducts of two aspects that interest the filmmaker the most, pre-production and on-set work.
COOK: I actually agree with most of what you say here, and his images can be frustrating in their meticulous specificity yet unreadability, which, yes, maybe can translate as arbitrary. However, for me this isn't purely academic if only because of the reactions, intuitive and emotional, they can evoke. His compositions tend to have a paradoxical quality in that they interrupt my viewing of the film and make me especially conscious of every single choice he makes—yet this doesn't disconnect me from the narrative or the characters that I engage with rather classically (though Contagion is another case entirely). Often his choice in angle and camera position will imbue the image with an entirely unexpected feeling, and it is this succession of unexpected feelings evoked in unexpected ways that formulates Soderbergh's cinema, or at least that which I find most compelling within it.
KASMAN: Yes, his position is indeed interesting in that he seems to ask for, and often evoke, classical melodramatic virtues of cinema, and even approach filmmaking with classical sense of space and storytelling, yet nevertheless something in his choices render them evident as choices, within his Hollywood “dramatic virtues.” He may be working somewhere in the borderlands few have talked about. (I think Fincher is in many ways similar in method and result, by the way.) To bring it back to Candelabra, as a Canadian do you find in the film an analysis of something specifically American? Especially in connection to the capitalist bodies in The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike...
COOK: To be really precise, it's so specifically Vegas—but, of course, Las Vegas acts as a sort of beacon, a coalescence of the surrounding nation's driving motivations, not so much a distortion but a clarification of late capitalist society's hunger for excess and perfection as defined by monetary succes and surface (artificial) beauty. But is this something limited to America? In some ways, maybe, but to fully give into that notion would be naïve on my part: stories like these at least partly implicate anyone in a society that reveres its wealth, and its wealthy.