The film screened at numerous festivals, including Sundance, and received critical acclaim; it was nominated for 14 awards Genie Awards at the 17th ceremony, winning 4, including Best Picture.
Lilies is set in a Quebec prison in 1952. Jean Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin), the local bishop, is brought to the prison to hear the confession of Simon Doucet (Aubert Pallascio), a dying inmate. But Doucet in fact has a very different revelation for Bilodeau: he has enlisted his fellow inmates to stage a play set in 1912, when Bilodeau and Doucet were childhood friends.
Most of the film consists of the play within the film, presented by the inmates for Bilodeau and Doucet. Because it is taking place within a prison, the female roles are portrayed by the male prisoners. The young Bilodeau and Simon are performed by younger inmates (Matthew Ferguson and Jason Cadieux).
The play dramatizes a period during Bilodeau and Simon's childhood in Roberval, Quebec, when they were both coming to terms with their homosexuality. Simon has a romantic relationship with Vallier (Danny Gilmore), while Bilodeau remains repressed and tries desperately to convince Simon to join the seminary with him. All three are involved in a school play dramatizing the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, with Simon in the lead role. The St. Sebastian play's homoerotic undertones contribute to Bilodeau's sexual awakening, which involves an unrequited love for Simon. Bilodeau recognizes the nature of the relationship between Simon and Vallier, and confronts them one afternoon after the rehearsal of the St. Sebastian play. Simon and Vallier attack and subdue Bilodeau, so that Simon can engage him in a derisively passionate kiss. In the middle of the kiss, Vallier's mother, the Countess de Tilly (Brent Carver) enters the arena, forcing Simon to break off the kiss and flee. Vallier's mother (who is slightly insane) is unperturbed at what she has seen, and has Vallier escort her to the arrival of a Parisian aristocrat arriving in a hot air balloon.
Simon's father is also at the arrival, where Vallier's mother unwittingly reveals to him that she saw his son passionately kissing Bilodeau. In a rage, Mr. Doucet finds Simon and brutally beats him, to the point where he must find medical attention for his wounds. He chooses to see a Parisian doctor staying at the hotel in town (to avoid the town doctor telling his business), and he meets Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), a young Parisian baroness. Because of the beating, Simon renounces his love for Vallier and appears to fall in love with Lydie-Ann, eventually becoming engaged to her. However, Vallier's mother encourages Vallier to attend the engagement party and declare his love for Simon. At the party, it becomes apparent that Simon never stopped loving Vallier and was only using Lydie-Ann to pass as heterosexual. Because her feelings are hurt, Lydie-Ann reveals to Vallier's mother that her estranged husband is living happily in Paris with a new wife and child. She also tells her that she came to Roberval on the recommendation of Vallier's father, and while he mentioned structures and the landscape of the town, he never once spoke of the wife or child he left behind there.
After the party, Simon and Vallier meet for one last romantic encounter. Afterwards, Vallier's mother says that she will be going to Paris, and invites Simon and Vallier to see her off. Instead, she leads them to a place in the woods, where she lies down in a shallow grave and has Vallier strangle her to death. Bilodeau witnesses the murder, and is spurred to confess his love for Simon. When rejected, he sets fire to the room where Vallier and Simon are staying and locks the door, so that they cannot escape. Because there are no windows and no other way to ventilate the space, the two young men are soon overcome by the smoke and heat. Bilodeau is remorseful and returns in time to drag Simon to safety, but leaves Vallier in the room. Bilodeau falsely tells the policemen who have arrived on the scene that Vallier is already dead, so they do not go back to save him, and he perishes in the flames.
The play reveals that Vallier's murder is the crime for which Simon Doucet was falsely arrested and convicted. Thus, the play was designed not as Doucet's confession of his sins, but a ploy to extract a confession of guilt from Bilodeau. As a result, Bilodeau asks Doucet to kill him, but Doucet refuses.
In a 2017 interview with CBC Arts, Greyson described the film as a "strange Genet-inflected-via-Fellini fable".
The play-within-the-film is sometimes shot in realistic settings, while others explicitly take place in the prison chapel. Realist scenes segue into prison scenes through visible set changes. After a realist autumn scene, leaves are shown being removed from the chapel floor. The final lovemaking scene between Doucet and Vallier is presented in realist style, but fades into a prison scene when the boat in which the couple are having sex becomes a bathtub in the chapel.
Even in the realist scenes, however, female characters in the prison play are portrayed by the male actors portraying the prisoners.
The play's dialogue and acting are deliberately heightened according to stage, rather than film conventions.
The film was nominated for 14 Genie Awards at the 17th ceremony. It won the following awards:Best Motion Picture
Best Sound (Don Cohen, Keith Elliott, Scott Purdy, Scott Shepherd, Don White)
Best Costume Design (Linda Muir)
Best Art Direction (Sandra Kybartas)
Other Genies for which the film was nominated, but did not win:Best Direction – John Greyson
Best Actor in a Leading Role – Danny Gilmore
Best Actor in a Leading Role – Jason Cadieux
Best Actor in a Leading Role – Matthew Ferguson
Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Alexander Chapman
Best Adapted Screenplay – Michel Marc Bouchard and Linda Gaboriau
Best Sound Editing – Janice Ierulli, Donna Powell, Tony Currie, Diane Boucher, Jane Tattersall and Richard Harkness
Best Original Score – Mychael Danna
Best Editing – André Corriveau
Best Cinematography – Daniel Jobin
The film also won the following awards:Montreal World Film Festival, 1996 – Best Canadian Film
L.A. Outfest, 1997 – Outstanding Narrative Feature
Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, 1997 – Audience Favorite
The film was also nominated for the following awards, but did not win:Locarno International Film Festival, 1996 – Golden Leopard
GLAAD Media Awards, 1998 – Outstanding Film (Limited Release)