The German/Canadian documentarian Thomas Wallner’s record of the closing night of the ‘Gardenia’ the famous Belgian Cabaret that had been touring Europe for the past years pries far too closely for comfort into the melancholy filled lives of the performers. They are a group of elderly, mainly overweight, transsexuals and gay men who are drag queens and have gathered together for one final performance in the only thing that has given them any real pleasure in life. On stage they come alive and are so happy in their adopted persona’s that seem so far removed from their lonely and solitary lives out of the spotlight.
Wallner’s film studies each of the seven performers, some of whom have been taking female hormones for years, and others who went the whole way and took their lives in their hands by having gender re-assignment in Casablanca in a shady unlicensed clinic. Vanessa was one of the latter group and was dismayed to find that as attractive as she was, society still totally turned their back on her, and the only way she could pay back the huge cost of the surgery was to become a prostitute for a short time. She added bitterly that the ‘short time’ soon became 13 years.
Griet also had the surgery but found life far too difficult to live as a woman, so he now has reverted to being a male, albeit he still has breasts.
Rudy is a sad gay man who lives in total fear of both himself and society and whose three relationships have ended very badly ….. one partner hung himself. He shares a box of photographs that he had inherited from his father who served as soldier in WW2. They include the horrific graphic images of several men who had been hung for just being homosexual which render one speechless. Rudy is seen soaking in his bath and matter-of-factly explaining that he is convinced that when he dies not only will it take someone a long time to discover his body, but there will be no one around to bury him, so he had already planned his funeral himself.
Danilo used to eke out a comfortable living as a male prostitute fulfilling all his clients fantasies, but as he is far too old to do that he now makes ends meet being a caretaker in a brothel. He at least is one of the two in the group who still dates, although in his case it’s with a married man who has a child, so Danilo is just ‘his bit on the side’.
The interviews with all of them are interspersed with the very avant-garde cabaret itself. It is extremely stunning with highly stylised performance pieces even though the performers look like heavily made up old-fashioned drag queens for most of the time. Vanessa was horrified when they started rehearsals as they were all dressed in mens clothes for one of the routines and that brought back too many bad memories for her. They finish this final Show with a rather splendid choreographed routine to Ravel’s dramatic Bolero.
Wallner’s film was made when the Cabaret closed last year, but by the look and feel of everything, it could have easily have been a few decades ago. What this portrait essentially shows is group of very courageous people who had the strength of their convictions in an pre-Reality TV era when those type of decisions that they made were very tough calls. Society was so unforgiving and the fact that they are here now as witnesses to the fact that not all of them worked out as they planned, is a testament to their fortitude. For them performing and acting out their dream on stage gave them real joy, as it does us too just watching them, even though you can never really shake of the feeling of being a voyeur.