And so it goes, strangely enough, in the new film When Night Is Falling. A staid, settled Christian academic who yearns for more but isn't sure how to get it accidentally collides with a wild, confident circus performer, and sparks fly. Against an intoxicating backdrop of natural beauty and artificial magic, the two tentatively map out the limits of their lust, are separated by circumstances and moral cowardice and finally reunite -- against all odds --to avow their lasting love.
With such a classic arc of redemptive suffering and sensual excess to work with, should it really matter that both academic and performer -- Camille (Pascale Bussi�res) and Petra (Rachael Crawford) -- are female?
"Nope," says writer/director Patricia Rozema frankly. "I mean, come on. Heterosexualizing the story would be like setting yourself up to bore the pants off the audience. Uptight chick meets ... um ... circus guy? It's been done -- all those stories have been done." She pauses. "Though I admit it might be pleasantly retro to try and pass it off as something new while keeping a straight face, so to speak."
Thus far, Rozema's confidence in her third feature film -- which opens this Friday (May 5), on the heels of both the Genie-magnet monster hit (in the Canadian sense of the word), I've Heard The Mermaids Singing, and her innovative but alienating sophomore effort, White Room -- has proven entirely deserved. Not only has it already been picked up in the States, but it won Audience Choice Awards for its pre-release appearances at the 1995 Berlin Film Festival, French Women's Film Festival and London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
"Audience awards are where the rubber really hits the road," she says. "I value them far more than strictly critical awards because audiences don't care about who made the film -- they just watch the movie, and they like it or they don't."
Obviously, they did. But then, it's hard not to like a movie that takes its "s" words so very seriously -- one full of spectacle, sentiment, suffering, and lots and lots of gorgeously photographed, beautifully choreographed, quite explicit ... sex.
Rozema laughs. "There's a quote from somewhere that I like a lot, which does seem to apply: `The flesh will triumph.' It's certainly a very attractive movie -- accepting, and acceptable, on many levels. And one of its greatest strengths is that I never tried to dismiss men from the narrative -- to pretend we live in some kind of gender-neutral world, or make fun of the fact that some people just aren't gay. I went out of my way to give Henry Czerny (who plays Camille's increasingly bemused and terrified former boyfriend) his dignity."
In order to do so, Rozema admits, she had to take time away from the development of Camille and Petra's central relationship -- a narrative choice that's already drawn some accusations of her having "Harlequinized" lesbianism in order to court straight ticket-buyers.
"It's interesting to me," she says, "this mounting assumption that you're only allowed to write about `what you know.' I chose to make a film that celebrates sex between women, showing it in a very empathetic and ecstatic light, and I'm not going to hide the fact that in this case, I know exactly whereof I speak -- nor should I have to. But there are a lot of stories in the world, and not all of them are `gay' stories. And if I want to make them into films -- or make room for straight characters even in a movie that revolves around gay ones -- I see no reason why I shouldn't."
Those who like a rougher surface to their sensuality, however, may not find When Night Is Falling their particular cup of tea.
"No," Rozema agrees. "It's much more of a rich, full-bodied glass of wine -- if it gets you drunk, I'll feel I've done my job. Something kind of subtle on the palate, but with an insouciant edge."