From the moment Behind the Candelabra opens with a blow-out of disco-genius and camp, one can’t help but embrace two thoughts: first, that Matt Damon and Michael Douglas don’t actually make a bad pair of lovers; and second, that Side Effects, thankfully, doesn’t go down in cinema history as the last Steven Soderbergh film ever made. Instead, at the age of 50, the bustling director has once again crafted a fine-tuned drama that manages the balancing act of being exuberant and lavish without being patronising, and that is outrageously witty, feisty, slick looking and well-acted, without feeling conceited or narcissistic. What’s more, although doomed as ‘too gay’ by Hollywood’s studio bosses, and hence produced by HBO with no theatrical distribution deal in sight in the US, Behind the Candelabra shrewdly dissembles the various obstacles Soderbergh ran into when trying make what is now said to be his directorial swansong.
Part of the magic in Soderbergh’s thoroughly entertaining biopic on the life of flamboyant piano virtuoso Liberace comes from the way it strives to be as free-spirited, wily and simply irresistible as its subject. Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir about his troubled five-year relationship with the alluring entertainer, the film begins as the young, bisexual Thorson (Matt Damon) is introduced to the aging, publicly heterosexual megastar (Michael Douglas). As you would expect, Thorson soon can’t resist the palatial kitsch and subtle arts of seduction thrown at him by Liberace (who comes across as a lascivious, eccentric and oddly jealous father-figure). Soderbergh spends a reasonable amount of time plotting a credible romance between the two men in an unashamedly hilarious setting of late 1970s extravaganza, before delving into melodrama and tragedy as Liberace averts his gaze from his younger love interest and, ultimately, succumbs to AIDS at a time when many people still believed it was a pestilence sent by God to extinguish the bad seeds in his creation. At the same time, the film showcases some of the best acting seen to date by both Douglas and Damon. While Douglas banks on cocky charm and sympathy, the younger Damon delivers a more understated yet weighty performance, which comes across in unassuming looks and gestures compared to the obvious seduction, delusion and ultimate rejection engineered upon his character by Liberace.
In other words: Behind the Candelabra is more than just an epilogue to a career that embraces a wealth of inspired, original, if occasionally flawed, pieces of filmmaking, ever since Soderbergh first emerged on the big screen with Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989. And suddenly it all makes sense, at least to the craftsman himself, as he reflected on his departure from the director’s chair after the world premiere of his film at Cannes: ‘I am absolutely taking a break, I don’t know how extended it is going to be. But I can’t say that – if this was the last movie I made – I would be unhappy. And there is a connection to my first film, because by the end of the day, it’s really about two people in a room. At the same time, stylistically, it’s a progression. If you’d flashed me forward and showed me this film, I would have been able to recognise that there was a lot of experience that resulted in kind of a simplicity and directness in the filmmaking, that I think would have made me very happy. It’s been a nice run.’
Watch the trailer: