Before The Last Curtain Falls
Dir: Thomas Wallner
Cert: tbc • Ger/Bel: 86 min • Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion • July 2, 2014
Michael Langan reviews
In 2010 the avant-garde Belgian choreographer Alain Platel devised the stage show Gardenia, performed by a troupe of elderly drag artists. The piece explores their complicated lives, the difficulties of ageing, and deconstructs the wonders of transformation. It was a great success and toured the world, being performed over 200 times in 25 different countries. Thomas Wallner’s documentary, Before the Last Curtain Falls, documents the show’s return to Ghent, Belgium, for its very last performance, and documents also the lives and loves of the performers themselves, all of whom are in their sixties and seventies.
It’s a beautifully made, tender tribute to the lives of others, the camera’s smooth glide through the beauty of Ghent, mirrored in the slow glide of the choreography. Gardenia’s opening shows the performers, some of them transgender, all dressed in sober suits, stripped bare though clothed, no make-up, nothing to hide behind. But it’s as they transform into their drag personae throughout the show that they truly become themselves
What the film draws back the curtain on is exactly what is at stake for these human beings when it comes to living their somewhat difficult lives, negotiating changing and fluid social attitudes, and their own internalised homophobia, which tells them that happiness is a country they might never fully explore. They get to visit it occasionally, but it’s often taken away from them, whether it’s Gerrit who would have like to have gender reassignment surgery but had promised his mother he would never do it, or Andrea who had the procedure at 45 and who told herself, “Even if I die at 60, at least I had 15 years living as myself”. Danilo is a cleaner in a brothel and Gardenia is his way out of that life, but once the tour has finished he has to go back to it. Vanessa, after her surgery, found it hard to get a job, so a proposed short stint as a prostitute turned into thirteen years. Richard is a nurse, caring for sick babies in an intensive care unit, and in many ways his life seems the most stable, but even that is not without its complications. They are all looking for love but have struggled to find it.
Richard has become great friends with one of the other performers, Rudy, and it’s Rudy’s story I found the most affecting. He’s the least charismatic of the film’s subjects. He’s a man made afraid by his homosexuality, afraid of himself and of being different. Fearing death, he imagines dying alone, discovered days later. In one of the film’s most powerful moments Rudy takes a secret box, owned by his father from a shelf and explains that he was never allowed to touch it as a child. At the age of 12 his mother agreed to show him what was inside; photographs taken by his father when he was imprisoned during WWII, showing homosexuals hanging from makeshift gallows. Closeted for most of his life, he’s been largely crippled by his homosexuality and it seems truly tragic, but Gardenia allows him, at the age of 68, to fully explore himself. “In Gardenia I am doing something that is not allowed, that is not possible,” he says. “It makes me quite anxious.”
Wallner’s voice appears only once in the film and it’s a bravely important moment. Vanessa loses her temper with him, visibly upset, when Wallner casually questions her about childhood as a boy. “What was your name back then?” he asks, apparently failing to understand the emotional strain of talking about her life “back then”, as if it was merely another performance. Lesson learned.
Before the Last Curtain Falls was my favourite of all the films I saw during Queer Lisboa 18 – it is touching, funny, and extremely moving at times, especially when the performers explore their own histories and examine their possible futures. The stage show, Gardenia, has transformed their lives once more, taking them back onto the stage, or affording them a new lease of life – an opportunity to examine themselves deeply, to be validated by an audience and, perhaps, inside themselves. In that way they are also transformed.