The crux of Patricia Rozema's When Night Is Falling is a woman's sexual awakening, which in itself has all the cinematic originality of a San Francisco car chase or a cowboy riding into the sunset. But Rozema is no commonplace filmmaker, as anyone who saw her cult hit I've Heard the Mermaids Singing can attest. She uses myth and magic to advance her tales, and she has a gift (not unlike her hero Ingmar Bergman's) for exploring the interiors of characters just by seeming to gaze into their eyes with her camera.
Night is constructed from a flagrant opposition--the repression of a Calvinist theologian named Camille (Pascale Bussieres) versus the liberated spirit of an exotic circus performer called Petra (Rachael Crawford). But Rozema isn't content to tap out another hipper-than-thou fable demonstrating the superiority of pagan freedom over Christian orthodoxy, or even of homosexual over heterosexual love. She doesn't even dwell very long on her brainy switcheroo on the Cupid and Psyche myth. Not many would get it if she did.
No, what we have here is a dream of passion, blessedly free of electioneering or agit-prop. To Rozema's credit, the movie's third wheel, Camille's shocked and jilted male lover, Martin (Henry Czerny), is reasonably well-drawn, too: He may be lame, but he's never loaded down with the burden of foolishness a stiffer, more doctrinaire moviemaker might lay on him. Even a hopelessly conventional minister named Reverend DeBoer (David Fox) is granted certain moments of revelation: When he comes to understand why his college faculty pets, Camille and Martin, will never marry and serve as co-chaplains, he stops to consider the prohibitions his church has long imposed.
All right. Here's the part the beast in you has been waiting for: The lesbian sex scenes in When Night Is Falling are as sensual and steamy as any we've seen for a while, without resorting to the kind of gynecological detail you find on the far side of the barrier at the video shop. It also must be said that the filmmaker gives almost equal time to hetero couplings. So, then, something for all of us.
The ever-deepening affair between Camille and Petra is also a complex mind game, of course--Petra's unbridled aggression versus Camille's reluctance; the mysterious gypsy soul of performance at last overwhelming the strictures of nice, clean Christian college life in a nice, clean Canadian city in the midst of winter. There's even a nicely wrought twist on the old fantasy/joke about running away to join, well, you know.
Meanwhile, Rozema has her famous visual style all cranked up. Petra and Camille's mating ritual is reflected in a pair of synchronized trapeze artists beautifully entwined on high in the filmmaker's dark dream of a circus. Earlier, the lovely Bussieres's painterly face is flushed with delicious fright as Camille breaks her fetters on a surreal hang-glider flight. At beginning and end, there's also an underwater lovemaking scene--all slowly undulating flesh and unidentifiable body parts--that expresses the mystery of lust as purely as a poem.
In mid-quandary, Camille suggests friendship, not love, to the dark, lithe, clearly alluring Petra. "Like Thelma and Louise--but without the guns," she says. "I don't know," Petra answers. "Without the guns..."
From that point on, we can hardly wait until the shooting starts, soul to soul, heart to heart. Impeccably acted and beautifully written, here's a deep-down drama with plenty of appeal for people of all orientations--particularly the thoughtful.