“Fear is what you pay for adventure.”
I first saw this film back in 1995 in Seattle’s U-District. I’d just graduated from college, and was enjoying the summer before going to TESC to pursue a degree in psychology. Immediately, I fell in love with Pascale Bussières, and if you were honest with yourself, you could hardly blame me.
I decided to watch it again this evening after a long day in the studio, pushing my lush Sennelier pastels into a very rough canvas. I’m burnt out and my hands are killing me. It’s time to crash out on the pod in the living room and get lost in a few films – I settle on When Night is Falling in part because I can lose myself in it, and few films these days offer that kind of refuge.
When Night is Falling is the kind of movie I associate with Autumn, not Spring. But it’s cold out today, not damp, not warm, so the timing feels right.
Watching the opening credits, it’s amazing to me they didn’t form an eternal vision, burned in my mind — Pascale’s character, Camille Baker, dreams of swimming naked, feminine forms surround her, embrace her. She wakes to her dog (Bob) licking her face. It’s this sort of blending of the dream world and the living world that make writer/director Patricia Rozema’s work decadent and engrossing.
It’s interesting to see the film these many years later. The mind loosens it’s grasp on details as time slips by. Certain nuances are lost, and are once again new – what a pleasure it is to watch Camille wander through the tents of the Cirkus of Sorts, with her wide-eyed mix of curiosity and uncertainty. When at last she’s pushed through a curtain and presented as a performer there for an audition.
“I have laundry,” she says when at last it’s clear she’s been mistaken for someone else.
I’ve purposefully left out the mundane scene in which Camille meets Petra Soft (played by the delightful, if not overzealous, Rachael Crawford) at a laundromat. I found this boring in 1995, and nothing has since changed. It isn’t until they walk into Petra’s star covered trailer that opens like a door in the sky that I’m totally exhausted with picturing these two characters together. There’s something about small trailers that have been done up with exotic, deep-red paint, hung with multi-colored rich fabrics, and decorated with about a hundred throw pillows that really grabs my imagination. If that weren’t enough, Camille, who’s “not much of a drinker,” takes a seat and begins tossing back with Petra from the most fascinating little glasses. I would love to be a prop person – that job has got to be amazing.
What inspires me now, after all these years is the small talk between these two women. I was young when I first saw the film – barely in my twenties – and I found a lot of the dialog corny, contrived, and rigid. Even after Petra says she wants to see Camille naked in the moonlight, her head thrown back, her body on fire I don’t find myself laughing as I once did. Instead, I think, “Yeah, me too.” Yes, it’s still corny, but I can get behind that now – I’m a lot more forgiving, I find.
If you can get through this first trailer talk, certainly you still might find yourself laughing at the next scene in which Petra (dressed in a god-awful outfit) shoots a glossy, black and white, erotic photo of herself through Camille’s window. Do women really do this sort of thing? I wish. How many times have I wanted some exotic circus performer to send me saucy photos of themselves while standing on my front lawn dressed in a raspberry beret? Not often enough, clearly, because I’m moved when Camille actually invites Petra in and then stares at her mouth for what seems like an eternity.
That first, tenative kiss still evokes that sort of trembling feeling you got when you were in school and someone you really liked was about to kiss you and you were keenly aware of it (you know, the knots in your stomach, the sweaty palms). Rewind it and watch it again. It’s that good.
It still makes me laugh when she runs from her own house, checking right and left first, and makes a getaway in that old blue Volvo of hers. Moments later she’s facing an interview panel at the New College of Faith where she and her boyfriend (Henry Czerny) work. How delicious that they are grilled on the topic of homosexuality only moments after this steamy girl-on-girl kiss has ensued. And how duplicitous Camille must feel when she embraces a concerned Czerny in her office afterward, as Petra looks onward from a branch on a tree outside her office window.
“Like Thelma and Louise,” Camille sighs, “without the guns.” This is how a straight woman lets down a gay woman – in straight-speak: let’s just be really close friends who do everything together except have sex. Petra agrees but says she has something to do – and since they’re now friends, why don’t they go together?
You know what I like to do to every person that turns me down for a date and suggests we should be friends? Take them on a really scary adventure where they’ll be trapped into being really close to me in a life-threatening situation. And Petra’s no different, she knows every trick in the book. She takes Camille hand gliding, quipping “You have to try it, Camille. How will you know if you don’t try it?” Ha. We’ve heard that one before. Camille agrees and it would seem as though Petra’s plan was working. Only…Camille passes out during their little adventure, as night is falling, and they crash into the snow. Petra, you dumb-ass. It’s only fun if no one gets hurt.
Their first friend-only bonding session complete – Camille injured – the two return to Camille’s apartment where Petra tends to Camille’s hand gliding injury. One thing leads to a massage (as it usually does) – after all, “it’s very…healing” – and Camille gets nervous again, especially when her boss comes round, unexpectedly.
I love straight women, but ones that don’t know if they’re straight or not make me crazy (no offense, bi-sexual ladies, you’re a-okay with me if you know that you like it both ways – it’s the flip-floppers that kill). Camille is no different, but there’s something oddly tragic about the way she snaps to whenever a man is around – especially with all of the crosses hanging about in her apartment. In the hallway, she makes excuses about Petra’s presence, as if the very fact that she’s occupying the same space with another woman is a sin. And with the way these two look at each other, maybe it is…because not two minutes later, Camille’s decides to go visit her boyfriend (out of wedlock, super steamy-sinful-inspired-by-Petra’s-backrub-love-scene ensues). For shame!
Can I just say, I love watching Camille do her dishes, alone in the vast space of her apartment, a solitary light shining down on her. In the darkness, a figure moves toward her. It’s Petra. She moves slowly, fluidly to Camille, embraces her. Sigh. It’s lyrical. And you know, pale-skinned women are so lovely. When they do any type of love scene in a movie, you can tell that they’re into the moment when their cheeks begin to blush. Then, Rozema pulls the magic fantasy carpet from under us and we’re back doing the dishes, alone, again. Oh pooh. I hate doing the dishes. Alone.
It’s only when we see Camille’s blue Volvo pulling up outside the Cirkus of Sorts that we begin to hope again that maybe, just maybe, these two women are going to get their stuff together once and for all. Of course Camille wants Petra – the crazy love scene with her boyfriend has only solidified it more for me. Everyone tries to hide when they’re scared, and some of us just choose to hide in the one place you wouldn’t expect them. Only, we do expect it now. We’re older, wiser. So, when Camille finds Petra reclining against a bunch of velvety curtains and rope, of course we now that this is it – this is the moment.
Be sure you’re watching the Collector’s Edition of this film, by the way – this first love scene between Camille and Petra is extended ( >> yes, uncut <<) and much steamier than I remember. If you don’t have the Collector’s Edition of this film, it’s worth purchasing – even if you’ve got an old version of the DVD laying around somewhere, and you’re a cheapskate, and you don’t really like the film that much. Yes. This new love scene is worth it. It’s beautiful. It’s moving. It’s romantic. It’s truthful. It’s real. And no, I can’t think of a better compliment to give writer/director Rozema. It’s gorgeous and stunning, and I find myself gawking. I watch it twice because it’s the first time I’ve seen it. So we come to one of my first rules of being a cinematic fanatic: Everything good should be watched twice, in quick succession, to better make an impression and be understood.
Unfortunately, the good times don’t last – they never do, because a story arc depends on something bad happening to tear our love cats apart. If only momentarily. Camille, in utter moral peril turns to her boss, the minister, for absolution. She practically throws up in his office. He offers forgiveness if she’s repentent. You know the deal. By the time she returns to Petra, the Cirkus is celebrating an invitation to an exclusive circus gathering in San Franciscio: Circumstance. And, by the looks of it, circus people are party people who like to dirty dance with one another. Petra envelopes Camille and the two begin to dance with a sprinkle of glitter. It’s fanciful – until the women begin garnering too much attention and Camille relapses into her uber-Christian-guilt-melt. “Aren’t you cute?” Petra says. They kiss, and make up, and kiss some more, and make up even more in Petra’s trailer.
It’s about this time that we begin to wonder what’s happened to Camille’s boyfriend, Mark. And like that, he appears! He pops around Camille’s apartment where he waits for her all night on a tiny loveseat (schmuck! – why doesn’t he just sleep in her very large, very inviting bed?). It’s when he falls off the sofa we know he’s about to find out his girlfriend has a girlfriend. You just know. And when he finds that damn glossy, black and white, erotic photo (and business card) of Petra while rifling through Camille’s paperwork, you know it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.
This is my one contention with this film – I’m past the point of liking the part when characters who are really non-essential to the plot pop around to make me feel miserable, paranoid, and uncomfortable by sharing how miserable, paranoid, and uncomfortable they are with the decisions being made in the film. That’s just what Czerny’s character does next…he pops around the circus and peeps through Petra’s trailer window to see the two of them together. Why? There are better, less painful ways to find out your girlfriend has a girlfriend. But, Rozema is ruthless in this regard, and we have to take the bitter with the sweet. Poor boyfriend.
Meanwhile, back at the trailer, Camille finally has the nerve to admit she’s in love with Petra.
“Everything gets ordinary, eventually,” is the retort giving by Petra’s character, hastily pulling on her bra. Why does Rozema take the liberty to throw salt on our wounds? This is why people drink – to sterilize the wounds on their hearts. It’s just when they’ve decided they might have a future together that the boyfriend has his peep at them (check out Henry Czerny’s eye twitch as the two women share a quick peck – it’s brilliant).
Prepare to feel like you need a shower when boyfriend invades the love shack and introduces himself, disdainfully, to Petra after Camille leaves. He says, quite succinctly, “I’m Mark,” and leaves quickly to punch the hell out of Petra’s trailer in a testosterone-filled-morally-rightful rage.
Back at her apartment, Mark and Camille have a talk over Camille’s dead dog’s body. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Too real and I decide I’m going to put the film on pause and take a breath. Who hasn’t had a talk like this, to someone, at sometime in their life? That reminds me, I need more Coca-Cola from the store down the street. I grab my keys and take the Volvo (yes, I have one too) on a quick drive.
When I come back, I press play and cringe when I hear “The only real dialog is with God.” Mark, the boyfriend, is saying this to Camille in a soft voice in an attempt to quell Camille’s desire to tell him she’s seeing someone else. “It’s selfish to give yourself the relief of saying something…” I never get the feeling that they have a relationship worth saving, even after all these years, and I’m secretly glad that he knows she’s experiencing “these passing things” with someone other than him. But, I have come to agree with Mark. Telling someone you’re having an affair is selfish. You’re just doing it to relieve your own sense of guilt, to push the weight from your shoulders to your partners. And that’s just gross.
I won’t tell you the end – in case – but it’s worth watching, all the way through the credits (there’s a moment, a special moment, that I’d like you to enjoy, so keep watching…you’ll know it when you see it).
The final word: This is a beautiful film that eloquently frames the timeless struggle everyone (gay, straight) feels when they are suddenly shown a different version of themself, and a divergent path presents itself like candy in a world gone gray and tasteless. Enjoy.
Official site for director: Patricia Rozema
Wiki facts: When Night is Falling
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%