Of all the major directors of the past 20 years, Steven Soderbergh has always seemed the least emotional. His movies certainly never take a bath in the stuff. So it doesn’t sound like much to call Behind The Candelabra (HBO, 5.26) his most emotional and touching work. But I don’t mean it lightly. This HBO movie (which will play theatrically in Europe) truly touches bottom and strikes a chord. It’s a sad (but not glum or downish), movingly performed drama about a kind of marriage that begins well and then goes south after five years. Richard LaGravanese‘s script is complex, fleshed-out and recognizably human at every turn, and performed with considerable feeling and vulnerability by Michael Douglas (easily the top contender right now for a Best Actor prize) and Matt Damon.

Behind The Candelabra star Michael Douglas during this morning’s Cannes Film Festival press conference.

The flavor and the hook, of course, is that the “marriage” is a kind of father-son, rich-poor, sexual predator-young kid thing between the 50ish Liberace (Douglas) and the much younger Scott Thorson (Damon). Like all relationships it begins well and then turns bizarre with plastic surgery detours and then goes sharply south due to Thorson’s self-esteem issues and drug addiction and, at the very end, ultra-frosty vibes from Liberace and his staff, and then a lawsuit. But it ends compassionately, tenderly.

The five years that Liberace and Scott Thorson had together were like any other passionate coupling, subject to the same ups and downs. Okay, not subject to the enormously flamboyant lifestyle that was Liberace’s daily bread and butter, but otherwise it’s just another love affair that flourishes for a time and then runs its course.

Douglas really moved me. He’s not “doing” Liberace as much as playing a European man of many varied influences and tastes and attitudes — a fully realized fellow funnelled through a skilled inhabiting of a highly colorful performer. He’ll probably win the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor award, or at the very least is a hot contender. Things didn’t look good for Douglas during his cancer scare, as we all know, and then Candelabra happened and he’s now got a performance under his belt that he can be genuinely proud of the rest of his days. Douglas choked up a bit when he talked about this during the press conference. I felt what he was feeling, and good for him.

I have to cut out. Claire DenisLes Salauds (Bastards) starts in 25 minutes.

Matt Damon during press conference.

Steven Soderbergh.