CANNES - A late, not-entirely-incidental scene in “Behind the Candelabra” finds Swarovski-encrusted pianist Liberace holding forth on the 1981 Academy Awards. The showbiz legend is due to make his long-desired debut appearance as performer and presenter, and you may or may not be surprised to learn that he’s backing “On Golden Pond,” that maudlin, Vaseline-lit ode to comfortable expiration, to take the gold. “I’m so glad Jane Fonda’s dropped all those awful causes and made a nice film with her father,” he coos primly. “Our job is to entertain the world and sell lots of drinks and souvenirs.” 

Steven Soderbergh’s alternately raw and riotous account of the last years of Liberace—if that sounds like a reference to an era rather than an individual, it should—is crammed with delicious asides like this, and they’re not the throwaways they initially seem. Much of the film’s blithest humor is used to expose its subject’s deepest social and personal limitations, though its stance is more bemused than vindictive: as well as a touching and tough-minded love story, “Behind the Candelabra” is a sympathetic study of a man defiantly resisting his own significance. Its own causes, still politically hot a quarter-century after the man’s death, are subtly enfolded into its goggle-eyed celebrity spectacle. It’s entertainment with a capital, fur-lined E, though I suspect Liberace wouldn’t have cared much for it.

For one thing, the musician who yearned for big-screen stardom probably wouldn’t have been amused that his outsized life is being treated as a TV movie – albeit a TV movie that has seen the inside of the Cannes Film Festival’s cavernous Grand Lumiere theater. The good news is that “Behind the Candelabra,” for all its seamy up-close intimacy, feels neither structurally nor formally compromised by the nurturing hand of HBO; it’s a biopic that bristles with life at the edges, luxuriating in the excesses of its personalities and production design alike.

In terms of content, meanwhile, the film’s televisual backing seems to have had an expanding effect. Soderbergh has remarked that he chose the small-screen path only because Richard LaGravenese’s script was “too gay” for theatrical film studios, and it’s certainly hard to think of a more forthright portrait of homosexual domesticity in mainstream cinema: it’s a film that takes sexuality as a given, all the better to magnify what’s genuinely queer about the sixtysomething Liberace’s relationship with gradually disillusioned young buck Scott Thorson.

While Michael Douglas’s shrewd, rude, wickedly funny turn as Liberace (known to his loved ones as Lee) is undeniably the star attraction of a film that, at least for its glitter-strewn first half, doesn’t stint on the seductive properties of camp, the story belongs chiefly to Scott, smartly played by Matt Damon as a stolid yet corruptible soul born of the foster-care system, who suddenly finds in the older man more family than either one can really handle.

Introduced to Liberace toward the end of the 1970s, with disco dying just as the AIDS crisis looms, Thorson’s sexual attraction to the bouffant-wigged showman is never far from a desire for the security of parental care; the rot sets in when Liberace takes this daddy complex to belief-defyingly literal levels. Under the principle-free knife of plastic surgeon Jack Startz (a frightening, hilariously hollow-eyed Rob Lowe), Scott is rebuilt in the less handsome image of his master; by the time formal adoption papers are drawn up, this relationship can bend no further without breaking.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.