Friday November 17, 1995

     The artifice of Canadian director Patricia Rozema's lesbian love story "When Night Is Falling" is apparent long before her characters, the circus performer Petra (Rachael Crawford) and the religious college professor Camille (Pascale Bussieres), get down to business.
     In fact, it's apparent in the opening image, a dreamlike fantasy of the naked Bussieres swimming underwater, symbolizing . . . what? Moral claustrophobia? Repressed sexuality? A promo for a nudist Club Med? For a moment, you may think you're watching the opening to that new James Bond movie.
     "When Night Is Falling," a phrase borrowed from Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," is one of the more blatantly wrong-headed entries in the current wave of independent gay and lesbian films. It is so focused on its own boldness, its dare-to-shock sensuality (the film got an NC-17 from the MPAA, but is being released unrated), that nothing else comes through.
     What passes for a backdrop in Rozema's script strains so hard for contrast and moral conflict that it verges on audience insult.
     What if an aggressively open lesbian were to develop a crush on a conservative college professor and the feeling, grudging as it may be, is mutual? Up the ante. Let's say the professor is in a long relationship with a minister and colleague, and that they are being considered for the co-chaplainship of their Protestant college. All they have to do is get married and pass a rigid board exam on devoutly homophobic Christian principle--the moral orals--and the job is theirs.
     Wouldn't that be something?
     It probably would, but Rozema, who made such a strong debut with her 1987 "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing," is so determined to make her primary point about the power of love that she overstates every incidental argument. Watching the movie is like reading a magazine article where every salient thought has been highlighted by somebody using a felt marker.
     But beyond everything else, Rozema has simply failed to create plausible relationships between the two women, and between Camille and her tortured lover Martin (Henry Czerny).
     On the surface, the women are fakes. Even for the surrealist avant-garde circus she belongs to, Petra is out of place. The role serves to show her as a grand eccentric and explain some of her outlandish behavior around Camille, but Crawford has no performance skills of her own. She may be prettier than the bearded lady but has less of an act.
     Camille is an even larger contradiction. For someone immersed in mythology, which she teaches, and religion, which she lives, Camille shows no passion for either. And the crisis finally facing her is as old as pain. She has to choose between two lovers--one new and exciting, the other solid and dependable--and decide whether to run away with the circus or stay home and eat oatmeal.
     The fact that all of this happens in about two days seriously undermines the drama. Rozema wants to have it both ways, to portray a romantic encounter as both pure lust and divined love, to build us up for some really hot sex, then cool us down with some soulful declarations of monogamous union. The whole thing makes for some pretty awkward eavesdropping on our part.
     "I love your sex, I love your wisdom and the way you say, 'Switcheroo,' " Petra coos during a post-coital embrace with Camille. "I love that sadness that you get in your eyes some times. . . . "
     Says Camille, moments later: "Listen, I love to look at you, I love to talk to you, I love your openness, I love what you do, I love you."
     Ah, forget it.


When Night Is Falling, 1995. Unrated. A Crucial Pictures Production, released by October Films. Director and writer Patricia Rozema. Producer Barbara Tranter. Cinematographer Douglas Koch. Editor Susan Shipton. Costumes Linda Muir. Music Leslie Barber. Production design John Dondertman. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. Pascale Bussieres as Camille. Rachael Crawford as Petra. Henry Czerny as Martin. David Fox as Reverend DeBoer.