[Author’s Note: Once in a while, I’ve had the urge to change things up for a review. This is one of those times. Anyone looking for a more traditional review of When Night is Falling can check out my comments in the Looking Back & Second Thoughts section that follows the more playful original below.]
Television’s The X-Files having ushered in a robust new age of paranoia, I feel confident in asserting that the following deeply disturbing conversation must indeed have taken place somewhere within the bowels of an obscure sushi bar near Vancouver’s CBC studios:
Shadowy Unnamed Producer: We’ve got to branch out, people. I know that all this Anne of Green Gables stuff is making a fortune for us on the world market, not to mention that the ratings are starting to beat Hockey Night in Canada, but the guys south of the border are making fun of us. We need to show ’em we can play in the big leagues. Nice is out.
Shadowy Unnamed Screenwriter: No more poignant multicultural dramas?
SUS: Light but endearing comedies?
SUS: (in a tremulous, disbelieving murmur) You don’t mean we’re going to try to make movies with….you know…with……….violent action?
SUP: Are you nuts? The budget for action pictures these days is bigger than the Liberal cuts to the CBC. No, there’s only one way to go.
SUS: Surely not……….sex?
SUP: I’m afraid so. Hey, it scares me too. But it’s the only playing field we can afford. Cheap sets, small casts, limited wardrobe.
SUS: But we’re Canadians. We don’t know anything about, you know….that.
SUP: What about Leonard Cohen?
SUS: Okay, Leonard Cohen knows. Exception to the rule. And those shameless tramps from Kids in the Hall and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, they know. But we’re talking motion pictures here, not poetry or satire. Besides, the Americans have got Sharon Stone and Linda Fiorentino and Madonna; we’ve got Mitsou and Celine Dion and Anne Murray.
SUP: Anne Murray’s sexier than Madonna.
SUS: You know that. I know that. Heck, k.d. lang’s sexier than Madonna. But the movie-going masses just aren’t going to buy a Canadian sex symbol. They don’t expect that kind of thing from us. And if we can’t use the sex symbols we have, and we can’t get Leonard Cohen, and we can’t make fun of sex, and we don’t even know that much about it, and we don’t have a budget…….we have about as much of a chance in the erotic movie market as Preston Manning has of going back to his old hairdo.
SUP: No so fast. Even America, movies are never really about sex. Sex always just a part of some violent melodrama. Sex has always made people more nervous than violence. Hollywood studies have shown that the average audience can handle about five minutes of love-making for every 85 minutes of car chases, impending death, explosions, and agonizing guilt over the five minutes of love-making. There’s an opening here for us.
SUS: But we’re Canadians. First you want sex, and now you want violence? I thought you’d ruled that out?
SUP: Not violence, you simpleton. Agonizing guilt. Margaret Atwood said survival was the great Canadian theme, but I’d go with guilt. Trust me. Here’s our new winning formula: five minutes of graphic love-making mixed in with 85 minutes of crippling regrets. And something dying.
SUS: This is going to sell?
SUP: Hey, we’re not going to out-gross Star Wars, but we’ll do alright. Of course, we need a disguise.
SUS: A disguise?
SUP: Even five minutes of passionate sex would not get Canadians to sit through an hour and a half of relentless guilt. You’ve got to add that magic ingredient that turns agony into entertainment.
SUS: You don’t mean……
SUP: Yes. Symbolism! Used sparingly, of course. Just enough to occasionally distract the audience from the real theme, persuade them that what they’re watching might be Art, avoid any suggestion that sex might be an expression of human joy, and guarantee us nominations at foreign film festivals.
SUS: Wow! Do you think we can actually find Canadian directors who can do that kind of work?
SUP: I just saw a couple of them walking into the sushi bar. Let’s check in on what they’ve been doing. Hey, Atom Egoyan! Long time no see! Whatcha been working on lately?
Atom: Exotica. It’s a film about these people who’re racked by guilt, hang out in an exotic dance club that’s full of symbolism, and experience five minutes of implied sex while being mysteriously linked by a single violent death.
SUS & SUP: Gosh! And you, you’re Patricia Rozema, aren’t you? Can you tell us about your last project?
Patricia: Well, shadowy unnamed persons, it was a movie called When Night is Falling. It’s got five minutes of graphic sex, and is about this rather conservative young woman named Camille, a teacher in a Christian college in Toronto, who experiences intense guilt—
SUS & SUP: Right on!!
Patricia: —over her attraction to a female dancer in a traveling circus company, and over her lack of commitment to the man who genuinely loves her, and who—
SUP: –destroys her life in the hopeless pursuit of an unattainable resolution to her conflict, finally committing suicide under a collection of symbols of her lost faith?
Patricia: Uh, no. She joins the circus and runs away with the dancer, liberating herself from a life which others would have chosen for her, but wasn’t her own—
SUS: —and is killed when a trapeze artist falls on her, symbolizing the crushing weight of unaccustomed freedom?
SUP: (Desperately) Her ex-boyfriend commits suicide in a symbolic—
Patricia: No, he just drinks a whole lot of coffee. Maybe falls in love with another woman who’s running away from the circus. When Night Is Falling is about life, not death. You know, it even ends with a sort of resurrection. Oh, and a Leonard Cohen song. (Patricia smiles and walks away.)
SUS & SUP: (Stunned silence.)
Sidebar #62e: Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night is Falling still stand as two of my favorite Canadian films. While being unflinchingly honest about relationships and frustrated dreams, both films are gentle at heart and incorporate magic moments that defy rationality but are great for the soul. Both have quirky endings that I wouldn’t change for the world. Both suggest that dreams may be deferred, but sometimes find their own ways of coming true. Night and Mermaids are films that walk in their own beauty.
When Night is Falling is also one of the most uninhibitedly erotic films Canada’s ever produced. The lyrical opening images of bodies, water, and ice evoke sensuality and loss. The first time that Camille (Pascale Bussières) and Petra (Rachel Crawford) meet, Camille confesses that she’s loved the dog she’s just lost “more than anything or anyone I was supposed to love.” Not a good sign for current boyfriend Martin (Henry Czerny). The second time they meet, Petra tells Camille, “I’d love to see you in the moonlight, with your head thrown back and your body on fire.” It’s a bit much for a Calvinist private school teacher handle. She scrambles out of Petra’s trailer as if the devil himself were tempting her. With Martin on the fast track to a chaplaincy and talk of marriage in the air, Camille doesn’t seem the likeliest candidate to be seduced by a free-spirited circus sprite. But the fire’s lit; it burns with a lovely flame. It also burns things down. The old image Camille had of herself and her future is reduced to ash, as is Martin’s complacent vision of marital bliss and career-anchoring domesticity.
Visually, Rozema plays off the bright, daylight tones of Camille’s conventional life at her Christian college, her home, and her neighborhood against the nighttime, hermetic world of circus promotor Timothy’s (Don Mckellar) darkside “Sirkus of Sorts.” Camille’s first sight of Petra at the cavernous circus warehouse is of her as a tantalizing dancing shadow behind a scrim. The first time Petra and Camille make love, their passion is mirrored by the performance of a pair of trapeze artists. The exterior of Petra’s trailer seems made up of pinpoints of starlight. Douglas Koch’s cinematography is flawless. Lesley Barber’s musical score adds poetry and resonance to every frame. This may also have been the first time a filmmaker recognized the power of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to heighten the pathos of anything to which it’s attached. It certainly wasn’t the last.
Petra is a survivor. She’s reckless. She has loved and lost, and will live and lose again. She warns Camille that “everything gets ordinary eventually.” Things pass. She cautions her, “Just think before you speak—you are what you say you are, so just be careful what you say.” Yet Petra herself throws caution to the winds and says what she thinks needs saying. After Camille bolts from her trailer, Petra tracks her down and shoots a toy arrow with her phone number attached through her window. This is what courtship means—it’s silliness and heat.
Ms. Rozema, who wrote the screenplay, provides no long-term guarantees of happiness. What she offers her characters instead is a chance to live more fully in the present than they thought possible. They embrace that chance, and small miracles happen. There are no losers. Even poor dumped Martin, sitting morosely in a café, is eyed by a young woman who’s running away from the circus. The irony is perfect. Lest there be any lingering doubts that we’re never truly down and out, Bob’s there to reminds us in bounding joy. Watch the film, and you’ll understand.
I must admit to having a soft spot for stories about running away with the circus. An old friend of mine once told me how she’d done just that when she was in her teens. She didn’t stay, and yet that memory still made her smile when she thought back upon it. There was magic there, and a hint of danger.
When the Night is Falling is partially autobiographical. Patricia Rozema was raised in a strict Calvinist household. She didn’t go out to see her first film until she was 16. TV watching was restricted to Disney and Wild Kingdom. Although she became involved in theatrical productions in college, and later worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, she made her astonishingly successful debut feature film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, when she was 29. She didn’t come out as gay until 1999. Unfortunately, I’ve never come across an interview or other writing where Ms. Rozema talked about her personal life and challenges. Her most recent film is 2018’s Mouthpiece, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Below are some excerpts from Malcolm Lawrence’s 1995 interview with Patricia, recorded shortly after the release of When Night is Falling:
I remember the Bergman films, a double feature of Persona and Face to Face. And not so much that I wanted to make films like that, but that there was such a wide range of styles in film that you could make films that had your own personal signature style. I’d only seen completely narrative driven stories that might have a metaphor here or there but they didn’t have such an elliptical, mysterious tone to them. But that was in college, I studied philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan., but I still didn’t imagine that I would make them and I the only way I knew of to tell stories and make a living at it was to be a journalist, so I became a journalist for a while, and it so happened that I went into broadcast journalism and discovered that I loved playing with images and putting sound together. And then I started writing screenplays and applying for arts councils grants, but I always imagined that it would just be this hobby I had while I made my living as a journalist. You know, once in a while I’d take some time off, make a movie, but I couldn’t ever imagine making a living—I didn’t fantasize being a filmmaker, I didn’t dare to think like that.
And then I made I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing and because of Mermaids I was invited into the Directors Fortnight in Canada and sold the film to 40 countries in a couple of days, and pretty soon it was winning awards and being shown all over the world and it was just a really joyful moment when I was welcomed into the field.
Petra’s character is more the norm these days than the character of Camille. Camille is the exotic freak. She’s the odd one. So, if you want to say which one is exotic, or the freak, it’s Camille who is not the norm of 1996 in modern urban life. I resist anyone using the word “exotic” for Petra. She’s free, she’s a worker, her job happens to be she’s an artist, which I presented as a job, but it’s a job not without it’s own kind of economic problems and she’s actually the most stable character. Camille’s the wingy one…. I think that they are radically different personalities and embody the two poles of society, of every culture. There’s an impulse towards orthodoxy and there’s an impulse towards progressivism and they always are in tension with each other and I think they are even in tension within ourselves. So I can externalize that and I have these two characters. Camille has found herself in this orthodox, tradition- oriented conservative world, and Petra is in a world of constant change, constant innovation and newness, and they need each other. I think every society needs each other and every individual needs the other one. If you’re just someone who just wants new all the time you can never have stability, you can never have any constancy in your life. It’s the same with a culture that doesn’t respect tradition in any way, it’s like a loose cannon.