Canadian director Patricia Rozema's sweet lesbian romance When Night Is Falling begins with the heroine, Camille, coming home to find her lovely little dog missing. She goes looking for him, and finds his pitiful, limp form lying in an alleyway. Unable to bear the thought of burying him yet, she takes his body home and puts it in the fridge.
Later that day, the traumatized Camille sits crying in a Laundromat and a stranger, a beautiful, young black woman named Petra, comforts her. This meeting grows into friendship and eventually the two become lovers of the star-crossed variety; Camille's a Christian college teacher, Petra is a circus performer.
Except, perhaps, for Love and Human Remains last year, When Night Is Falling may just be the most Canadian Canadian movie I've ever seen. The apartment Camille comes home to is impeccable, but so is the alleyway in which she finds the dog, and so is the poor creature himself--he looks as pristine and fluffy as if he'd just come from the groomer.
Same for the people. Camille and Petra are both exquisite beauties, but everyone else in the film looks awfully chic as well, right down to the bit players--even a bag lady with whom Camille speaks looks fairly well-appointed. This film supports a theory I've long held: If the Canadian cinema has a guiding aesthetic, it's that "Elegance Is Next to Godliness." Even when David Cronenberg (for whom Rozema once worked as an assistant director on The Fly) shows us mutating flesh and slithery monsters, they're generally the glossiest and most cosmopolitan abominations you've ever seen.
Canada would be the nation to turn to, then, for a soft-focus, sapphic fantasy with no rough edges. Rozema's movie is an erotic daydream for conservative women--conservative not in the political but in the behavioral sense. Camille, whose experience we're being invited to share, dresses in attractive but unflashy outfits, and has a nice, dull colleague for a fiance. She's a Calvinist--not even a flamboyant Christian.
Yet Camille's subject is mythology, so she's heard enough tales of transformation in the name of love to make her leap plausible, especially once she'd been exposed to the seductively archetypical atmosphere of the Sirkus of Sorts, the troupe with whom Petra performs. Petra's childlike, unassuming bluntness about her desires sets her up as less a character than as a projection of Camille's need--she's a Jungian anima in the flesh.
Rozema's somewhat overrated debut feature, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, was not saved from coy precocity even by the delightful performance of Sheila McCarthy. In general, When Night Is Falling is a better film, because Rozema knows what she wants--graphic but idealized sexuality in the style of those women's-fiction anthologies of "erotica"--and she has the skill to get it.
The film's romantic tone gets a little gushy at times, but Rozema works against it ever tumbling over into silliness. She directs the lead actresses, particularly Pascale Bussires as Camille, to get a hint of a double-take into their responses now and then, and she works a couple of wryly funny marginal figures into the background--the best is Don McKellar as a lordly circus honcho, bickering over money with his female partner, who finds herself fantasizing about running away from the circus.
The script has a couple of other good jokes (one explaining why Calvinists don't make love standing up) and even when the dialogue is at its swooniest, Rozema finds clever ways to keep it earthbound. In one scene, we see Camille driving a car saying (out loud), "She answers a kind of wordless question in me." We groan, assuming that she's handing this guff to her boyfriend, by way of breaking up with him. But then we see that she's alone in the car, rehearsing--"wordless question, that's good." We get to hear the line; the boyfriend is mercifully spared.
The title, by the way, according to the production material, references a lengthy quote from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander: "The world is a den of thieves and night is falling. Soon it will be the hour for robbers and murderers. Evil is breaking its chains and goes through the world like a mad dog.... So it shall be. Therefore let us be happy, let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. Therefore it is necessary, and not in the least shameful, to take pleasures in the little world, good food, gentle smiles, fruit-trees in bloom and waltzes."
It's lovely and wise advice, of course, but it also has an amusing streak of sentimental fatalism--as if, in a decent world, dour joylessness would somehow be preferable. It may be a sign of how pessimistic we've become about our world when even Calvinists start saying, "Oh, what the hell, go have some fun."
Angels & Insects: Directed by Philip Haas; with Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patsy Kensit, Jeremy Kemp, Douglas Henshall, Annette Badland and Saskia Wickham. Unrated.
The hero of Angels & Insects is a young British entomologist (Mark Rylance), a Victorian of modest background who returns from a long, adventuresome expedition to the Amazon to stay at the country mansion of his patron, a wealthy amateur naturalist (Jeremy Kemp). While there, he becomes infatuated with one of the man's beautiful daughters (Patsy Kensit) and she agrees to marry him, in spite of the class barriers between them. She proves a passionate and eager lover, but only at widely spaced intervals, and she seems to get pregnant every time they make love. Before long, the scientist begins to suspect that his wife has some sort of dark secret.
Within the context of a routine Merchant-Ivory-soap plot, this film from director Philip Haas (The Music of Chance)--adapted from A.S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia--explores a pointed hypothesis: The behavior of human beings, at least those of the upper class, parallels the mating, display and domination rituals of insects. The power of the film comes from Haas seeing this theme as concrete rather than abstract and theoretical. He cunningly uses costuming and composition to emphasize his comparison. When he gives us a high shot of the family milling on the banks of a pond--the older girls in their brilliant dresses, the children in their identical stripes, a poor relative in practical brown--we're meant to see them as if we'd just upturned a rock. When the maids pass a master in the hallways, they reflexively avert their eyes, in unison, and we're to see that they're the worker-drones of the colony; the obese, lolling, pale-skinned, fussed-over matriarch of the estate (Annette Badland) is clearly the queen bee.
To anyone who has observed both, the idea that the human and insect worlds have a lot in common won't come as much of a shock--or an insult, necessarily. To infer, however, that human society is "merely" insectile is a greater leap.
But whatever its limits as dramatized cultural Darwinism, Angels & Insects is fairly compelling as cinema--it certainly oughtn't be mistaken for just another costumer. Haas scripts and directs for a maximum of deadpan weirdness: Of an anthill that sheand the scientist are studying together, thepoor relative (Kristin Scott Thomas) blandly asks, "What shall we name the colony of the blood-red slavemakers?" A pretty unnerving variation, that, on "Anyone for tennis?"
When Night Is Falling:
Directed by Patricia Rozema; with Pascale Bussieres, Rachael Crawford, Henry Czerny, David Fox, DonMcKellar, Tracy Wright and Clare Coulter.
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