Behind the Candelabra
Soderbergh’s final film is the magnificent Behind the Candelabra (2013) adapted from Scott Thorsen’s memoir Behind the Candelabra: my life with Liberace. This final film competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Festival and premiered on HBO on May 26, 2013. The film had a small theatrical release which is unfortunate because it is one of Soderbergh’s finest films, and certainly his best film since Che: The Argentine (2008)
Completing an informal trilogy on capitalist bodies (The Girlfriend Experience (2009) and Magic Mike (2012)), Behind the Candelabra depicts the world of Las Vegas in the late-seventies (in a much different way than Casino (1995) showcased Las Vegas). We follow Scott Thorsen, a young and attractive veterinarian that happens to meet Liberace one night after a show. “I can’t believe strait people like this,” Scott says to his friend at the show. They like Liberace’s show because they don’t know he’s gay (I have no idea how this was kept secret but it was). Like almost all of Soderbergh’s work, back story and important character information is delivered efficiently. The audience is introduced to the world of Liberace through the eyes of Scott. It is not long before Scott is hired on to be the pianist’s new house boy, leaving his life behind as a veterinarian.
Things start great and then weirder and sadder as time passes. Scott has no life outside of that which is given to him by his man. Their relationship is tender and touching and one of the most interesting romances I’ve seen on screen for a long time. Their life together is complex but also depressingly simplistic (for Scott). Liberace is possessive, needy, caring, loving, and paternal (he adopts Scott as his son) all at the same time. He wants to be everything to Scott while taking everything away from him. Duplicity is certainly the primary concept at work in this narrative. Nothing is ever simply good or bad. Eventually, Scott loses everything (even his face) and Liberace fires him.
While the film is certainly sad at many points there is a lot of humor as well. Most of the jokes are delivered via Soderbergh’s non-judgmental depiction of Liberace’s life. Liberace had so much wealth and his life was so bizarre that it is hard not to laugh when you see how absurdly glamorous and vain he was.
While it would be somewhat challenging to group Soderbergh’s films together according to some consistent visual and editing style, his digital films have far more consistency and innovation than most American directors working (the only one that rivals his digital work in American cinema is John Hyams). His camera placement is inventive and exciting. Soderbergh’s cuts to angles and set-ups that have not been explored by other film makers. Soderbergh’s montage is as efficient as it always is in his film. His cutting is almost as precise and Fritz Lang’s montage: shots linger when they need to and scenes end when everything Soderbergh wanted to delivered has been shown to us.
I would recommend everyone, whether they are a Soderbergh fan or not, to check this film out. It is a great final work by one of the most prolific and inventive American directors in the last twenty years.