Patricia Rozema‘s When Night is Falling, the 1995 follow-up to her quirky, critically acclaimed I Heard the Mermaids Singing, is a coming out story told through lush cinematography and a passionate and compelling–if racially problematic–love story.
In both movies, the storylines involve a red-haired, straight-until-now protagonist who finds herself attracted to an artistic, confident, ‘out’ lesbian, and both tell their story through recurring visual imagery like white light and people flying through the air. Rozema is first and foremost a beautiful cinematographer, so you can’t help watching her movies and not be awed by their artistry, but When Night is Falling benefits from an obviously much larger budget than Mermaids.
Rozema forgoes the comedic magical-realism seen in Mermaids to create a lushly told dramatic tale that is more beautiful and much more overtly sexual in When Night is Falling.
Night’s story follows Camille, a professor of mythology at a conservative Christian college, who is undergoing a transformation similar to the ancient gods she lectures about. The catalyst for Camille’s change starts when her dog unexpectedly dies and she reveals to a beautiful stranger that she “loved him more than anything or anyone I’m supposed to love.” The stranger is Petra, a performance artist who is traveling through town with a financially struggling modern circus aptly named “Sircus of Sorts.”
If it seems like a highly improbable match, it is–but this is the movies, where extreme opposites often fall in love despite the understanding that they probably would never work out in real life and that makes it all the more exciting.
Camille is initially pursued rather aggressively by the charming Petra, and at times she seems as much drawn to Petra’s carefree spirit as to Petra’s alluring physical presence. But it is the conservative Camille who initiates their first kiss, memorable because of its incredibly slow and deliberate approach. The chemistry between the two actresses is palpable and viewers certainly find themselves rooting for the star crossed-lovers.
As their love story continues, Camille struggles with the external idea of being perceived as gay as much as she struggles with her own sense of self identity and religious doctrine. Her primary challenge in accepting that she is attracted to Petra seem to revolve around telling her fiancé about the affair and avoiding public displays of affection that seem to her to be “crass.” While she does confess to the reverend that she is confused by her attraction to Petra, Camille doesn’t seem to be conflicted about engaging in what she had previously believed was a sin.
Maybe Camille is just meant to be one of the lucky few who are very well adjusted, or maybe it’s because Camille was already actively engaging in what the church would consider sinful behavior by sleeping with her fiancé prior to marriage. In any case, it keeps the movie fairly light and romantic.
In casting Petra as a woman of color, Rozema chose to both challenge and reinforce racial stereotypes. While it is refreshing to see a woman of color characterized as a confident, “out,” feminine, and seemingly feminist lesbian (take note of the performance piece with the iron), Petra also plays the dual role of the circus “freak” in the eyes of Camille. Camille characterizes Petra by her “racy” clothes and unabashed sexuality.
The fact that the character of Petra is played by a woman of color begs the question of whether her race is one more thing the viewer is supposed to see as “exotic” about her.
The sad comparison that comes to mind is Sara Baartman, the African woman who was kept naked and caged as a circus act in Europe during the early 1800’s, condemned to display what the white culture of that time believed to be the inherent sexual lasciviousness of all black women. With such a loaded historical reference, the casting of Petra as a woman of color in this particular role seems at the very least to be ill conceived.
Strangely, the racial dynamic is alluded to but never explicitly discussed by the main characters. When caught by the Reverend in what seems to Camille like a compromising position with Petra, Camille lies to him and says that Petra is a “street kid” who is “highly disturbed.” There is nothing about Petra that would suggest she could be mistaken as either a kid or from the street, except for the fact that she is not white. When Petra overhears the offensive comment, she is disgusted and is next shown back at the circus highly upset; Camille comes to Petra that same night, and with absolutely no discussion at all about the offensive comment, they have sex for the first time.
Given all the loaded racial issues between them, the idea that these two would get together as a couple seems unlikely and almost dangerously self-hating on the part of Petra.
Despite my problems with the racial politics, When Night is Falling has a distinctly visual beauty that develops the love story into one that is heartwarming and endearing. There are several scenes that make tremendous use of the circus setting. From elegant trapeze artists to humorous anecdotal scenes of circus life on a shoestring budget, you can see why Camille is tempted to join Petra and run away with the circus. The warmth and humanity of Petra’s world is starkly contrasted with the cold, austere stone facades and stony faced people at Camille’s Christian college.
Like the story Camille tells Petra about Cupid running away with his lover because “gods and mortals were forbidden to be together,” you want Petra and Camille to overcome all obstacles for the sake of true passion and blossoming love.
With gorgeous cinematography, elegant and symbolic references to mythology and a deliciously satisfying sex scene between two feminine women with amazing chemistry, this movie is certainly a must see. One can only hope now that Rozema has tried her hand at an even bigger budget film, Mansfield Park, she won’t stop making films that successfully marry attention to cinematography and explicitly gay content.