Staging Death and Desire in John Greyson’s Lilies (2019)

Vallier (left) and Simon (right) while the two rehearse Le Martyre de saint Sébastien. Lilies (1996)  © John Greyson

Darian Razdar / 2019

What happens when my desire precipitates the death of that which attracts my longing?  When my love obliterates another/an other — or, when I am obliterated because I love – how do I move on? How do the survivors deal with the fallout? In what worlds is reparation for such tragedies possible?

Lilies,[1] adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard’s play Les Feluettes ou La répétition d’un drame romantique[2] for screen by John Greyson, features a tragic love story between two adolescent men, Simon Doucet and Count Vallier de Tilly. Greyson’s film translates Bouchard’s play within a play into a play within a film: the story is set in a prison in Québec, 1952, when the local bishop, Jean Bilodeau, enters the carceral chapel to hear Simon’s confession, which takes the form of a love story played by his fellow inmates – a love story wherein the bishop played a decisive role. In this play within a film, an ardent suitor, Lydie-Anne De Rozier, and hetero-catholic expectations stifle Simon and Vallier’s relationship, and Bilodeau’s contempt for Simon turns to desire and jealously, culminating in Vallier’s fiery death. Once the inmates conclude the play, and the pastor confesses his culpability, the film ends between Simon and Bilodeau in the prison chapel.

Greyson draws our attention to the intimacy between homoerotic desire and death by translating for the screen the theatrical conventions of the original stage play. Long shots from the 3rd person perspective and theatrical blocking techniques situates us as spectators to the inevitable tragedy. Learning from Bouchard’s play, Greyson stages dramatic metaphor in the form of an executioner’s kiss, an overflowing bathtub, and an attic on fire. Such theatrical elements collude with the story’s tragic plot lines — and in the historical context of the HIV/AIDS crisis — to communicate the inextricable ties between homoerotic desire and death.

Critical architecture studies provide a systematized lens through which Greyson’s translation of the homoerotic from stage to screen becomes clearer. Borrowing from Jean-Michel Foucault’s concept of subjectivation, as outlined in Paul Preciado’s “Architecture as a Practice of Biopolitical Disobedience,”[3] the specific architecture of a film – blocking, settings, shots, and edits – generates specific characters. Bouchard’s story-building and Greyson’s directing combine to create gay subjectivities deeply implicated in both desire and death.

In the opening scene of the play, our young hero, Simon, and martyr, Vallier, rehearse a scene from Le Martyre de saint Sébastien. Simon plays the unfortunate saint, while Vallier his executioner. Light shines on the boys from sun peeking through a window in the prison chapel. While Vallier ties his lover’s arms to a tree to prepare for his execution, the scene shifts back in time to a warmly lit theatre in rural Québec. Simon’s arms bound above his head, Vallier holding an arrow to Simon’s face, the couple confess their love, kiss, and recite their lines. Watching the tale unfold as if from a seat in the theatre’s front row, we bear witness as the couple dance on the precipice between desire and death – the necropolitics of gay subjectivity[4].

Fast-forward to the end of the play within the film, and we realize that Vallier and Simon’s kiss did the work of the archers’ arrows in reverse: their kiss kills Vallier. Greyson directs the couple’s final night together using painstaking dramatic metaphor that recalls the executioner’s kiss, while creating new meaning from a porcelain bath in the middle of the chapel’s otherwise empty stage. Literally overflowing with desire as Vallier and Simon make love, bathwater floods the prison floors while autumn leaves whirl into the scene and adorn the duo. Once again, the setting and cinematography of Lilies marks its two protagonists with desire and death. The next morning, Simon survives a fire set by Bilodeau in a jealous fury, while we watch an asphyxiated Vallier die alone.

Desire and death are never separate in the homoerotic.

Simon never moved on, nor did Bilodeau. The staging of Simon’s story as a confession in the confines of a prison is a form of reparation for the lethal violence caused by the pairing of homoerotic desire and death; it repairs some of the slow violence arising from lack of closure, outliving a loved one, feelings of culpability, and related incarceration. Staging the play reaches poetic justice: the film cuts to credits only after the pastor begs for his death and Simon hands him his knife. However, this sort of reparation does not change the facts of necropolitics at work in this story, nor in the lives of its gay audiences, wherein homoerotic desire is always coupled with the threat of death of gay amorous subjectivity.

[1] John Greyson, Lilies (1996; Montréal: Alliance Vivafilm), DVD.

[2] Michel Marc Bouchard, Les Feluettes ou La repetition d’un drame romantique (Montréal: Leméac Éditeur, 1988).

[3] Paul Preciado, “Architecture as an Act of Biopolitical Disobedience,” Anyone 25, (2012): 121-134.

[4] In reference to Micha Cardenas’ discussion of Achille Mbembe’s 2003 essay “Necropolitics.” Micha Cardenas, “Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms,” S&F Online, Barnard Center for Research on Women, 2016,