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With Lilies, Canadian director John Greyson (Urinal, Zero Patience) catapults over the gay cinema ghetto walls and into the front ranks of international filmmakers. This intelligent, beautiful, innovative movie won four 1996 Genies (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Motion Picture; and, if Academy Awards were really based on artistic merit, it would be an odds-on contender for at least another quartet of American statuettes.

Adapted by Michel Marc Bouchard from his prize-winning 1987 play Les Feluettes (a Quebecois idiom indicating frail or delicate things), Lilies opens somberly with Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin), a Catholic bishop, summoned to a prison chapel in 1952 to hear a dying inmate’s confession. Upon entering the confessional, he discovers that the prisoner, Simon (Aubert Pallascio), is not only healthy but a childhood acquaintance with a 40-year-old score to settle. Unexpectedly, the confessional door is locked from the outside, imprisoning the bishop and forcing him to witness a re-enactment of his own past.

On the chapel altar, two young, half-nude convicts perform a play about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. This scene triggers the first of a series of flashbacks to 1912 and the northern Quebec village of Roberval, where Bilodeau and Simon were raised. Young Simon (Jason Cadieux) and his classmate Vallier (Danny Gilmore) are rehearsing the same St. Sebastian play and are clearly attracted to one another. Their intimacy inflames the jealous, repressed adolescent Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson). Vallier’s open-minded mother, the Countess de Tilly (Brent Carver), is enthralled by the play’s frank eroticism and unwisely describes it to Simon’s homophobic father, who tracks down his son and sadistically whips him.

Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), a worldly French woman, descends into Roberval in a crimson hot-air balloon and takes up residence in the town’s posh resort hotel. She’s immediately drawn to Simon, who, uneasy about his feelings for Vallier and intimidated by his father’s violence, halfheartedly accepts her proposal of marriage. (Simon’s frustrated libido finds covert expression in pyromania; at night, he sets a series of fires in the town’s buildings.) Lovesick Vallier interrupts Simon and Lydie-Anne’s engagement party and forces his friend to perform a scene from the St. Sebastian play. This public acknowledgment of their love drives the envious, seminary-bound Bilodeau to a perfidious betrayal that results in Simon’s incarceration. Four decades later, the bishop is compelled to confront and confess his sin, and seek retribution.

Incorporating theatrical devices from Shakespeare, Wilde, Genêt, and Peter Weiss, Greyson and Bouchard have structured Lilies like a set of Chinese boxes. Challengingly but always coherently, they have created plays within plays, emphasizing the idea that gender itself is a kind of performance. In a casting master stroke, the prisoners perform both male and female roles in the flashbacks, conflating present and past, masculine and feminine. Greyson takes pains to sidestep the camp drag-queen quicksand of this Elizabethan/Kabuki gambit; his actors make no attempt to disguise their masculinity yet convincingly transcend the gender gap. The female characters are portrayed with unexpected compassion, especially by Carver, who gives a standout performance as the fragile, betrayed Countess. His work sparks an expressive ensemble headed by darkly handsome Cadieux (a younger Peter Gallagher) and trim, intense Gilmore.

Formally, Lilies is a remarkable achievement, fluidly interweaving the barren claustrophobia of the prison with the dreamlike autumnal beauty of the Quebec countryside. Scenes re-created in the chapel—at one point the sanctuary is transformed into a lake adrift with fallen leaves—melt into memories of Roberval, designed with an evocative splendor that surpasses the arid, museum-piece decors of Merchant-Ivory period pictures. Daniel Jobin’s camera work and Michael Danna’s score, a suite of choral liturgical compositions, expertly realize Greyson’s vision. Not since the ’60s masterpieces by Bertolucci and Coppola has there been such an exquisite display of voluptuous, virtuoso filmmaking.

In Lilies, Greyson addresses an array of complex issues—the latent homoerotic underpinnings of Catholicism; sexual and religious hypocrisy; class, gender, and race conflicts—with sensitivity and wit, and without a trace of didacticism. Before the opening credits are over, you know you’re in the hands of a masterful filmmaker. Lilies is too densely layered in form and content to be fully absorbed in a single viewing, so don’t be surprised to find yourself drawn back again to savor its riches.

In transgressive comedy, the line separating liberating impudence and off-putting coarseness is exceedingly thin yet instinctively felt. It’s what distinguishes Howard Stern’s free-wheeling social and sexual satire from the kindergarten potty humor of The Don and Mike Show. Without intelligence and an informing moral vision, comedy intended to shock quickly curdles.

The aptly titled Sour Grapes, the feature debut of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, is a dark, witless comedy that heedlessly overleaps that line. Performed, directed, and photographed like a malevolent sitcom, it’s a depressingly misanthropic experience.

Richie (Craig Bierko), a sneaker-sole designer, and his cousin Evan (Steven Weber), a brain surgeon, vacation in Atlantic City with their girlfriends. At the end of a bum-luck night at a casino, Richie borrows two quarters from Evan and hits a $436,000 slot-machine jackpot. Evan expects to be offered a substantial share of the windfall and is outraged when his cousin hands him a check for $1,000. This incident gives rise to an enmity that disrupts their lifelong friendship and results in, among other things, rancorous acts of revenge, the destruction of their romantic relationships, the death of Richie’s overprotective mother, and the accidental gelding of a television heartthrob.

Ostensibly a comic parable about the iniquitous power of greed, Sour Grapes crashes on the shoals of gratuitous nastiness. David, giddy on the ether of uncensored theatrical movie freedom, forgets that he’s obligated to be funny. His jokes, broadly delivered and often blatantly telegraphed, congeal on the big screen, and the targets of his humor—elderly women, blacks, the homeless—expose an obtuse sensibility.

I’m unqualified to compare David’s feature debut to his work with Jerry Seinfeld. As with Rosie O’Donnell, Maya Angelou, and sportscaster George Michael, the sight of that toothy, smarmy celebrity sets me sprinting for the remote. But I can assert that, at this point, David’s a hack director, overlighting and segmenting his narrative in clumsy sitcom fashion, and limning characters and settings without nuance or texture. Although his screenplay takes some unpredictable hops, it never strays far from laugh-track clichés—Jews cracking bagel jokes in thick New York accents, shiftless black street people jabbering in Ebonics, pauses left after leaden one-liners for guffaws that never come.

The performances, especially Bierko’s mugging, one-dimensional Richie and Viola Harris’ grating turn as his kvetching mother, are crude even by television standards. Only Karen Sillas, as Evan’s sensible, long-suffering girlfriend, manages to avoid discrediting herself. (Her character, a feminist, is belittled, then banished by the movie’s midpoint—an indication that no self-respecting woman belongs in David’s misogynistic world.) Matt Keeslar garners a few chuckles as the castrated Danny Pepper, but moviegoers with long memories will recognize that his role is a bald-faced recycling of Treat Williams’ soprano-voiced cop in The Ritz.

David’s decision to flood Sour Grapes’ soundtrack with snippets of classical music—Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and Schubert—is especially maladroit. It only serves to emphasize that his film is otherwise devoid of anything even faintly resembling class.CP