Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
At the forefront of the modern independent film movement is John Sayles, a
level-headed and serious filmmaker dedicated to working in a little-theater style: small stories,
honest performances, unusual subjects.
Lianna is an insightful movie about lesbian realities made at a time when only a few
Hollywood movies were coming out with 'shockingly honest' films about homosexuals, starring
handsome movie stars. Considered daring - a little too daring and independent to be
given serious Academy attention - today it plays as a sophisticated approach to a still-touchy topic.
Now handled by the IFC network and channeled through MGM for video distribution, Lianna
surfaces as a handsome MGM DVD.
College wife and mother Lianna Massey (Linda Griffiths) is unhappy with her husband
Dick (Jon DeVries), a film professor who treats her with selfish contempt. When she catches him with
one of his students she goes to her child psychology professor Ruth (Jane Hallaren) for comfort
and finds herself in a lesbian affair. Unfortunately, Lianna is too inexperienced to be cautious with
her new self-discovery. Telling Dick about Ruth gives him the leverage to force a cruelly unfair
prejudicing her impressionable kids in the bargain. Telling her best friend Sandy (Jo Henderson)
risks ruining Ruth's future at the college - Sandy can't handle the idea of lesbianism. When Ruth
reveals that she never intended their relationship to go this far, Lianna finds herself isolated and
depressed, no longer certain of her personal identity.
Mainstream 80s attempts to portray homosexuality often tried to downplay the sex content, with the odd
result that we'd wait awkwardly through a soapy romantic story to see if two same-gender actors
would kiss or not. The emphasis
still positioned gays as a sideshow, and we'd wonder if the actors involved 'were' or 'weren't' instead
of thinking about the story. Lianna has scenes of women in bed together and not always
behaving themselves, and it refuses to brand sexuality within anyone's strict limits.
The story of
Lianna Massey is one of female empowerment plain and simple. The character has been subservient
for ten years to the needs and wishes of her film-teacher husband, even to the extent of letting him
name their kids after his favorite movie stars. He's jealous of her time (she should be
helping him for free) but reserves the right to philander to his heart's content with
Lianna's drift toward the older, sympathetic Ruth becomes inevitable the moment the depressed
housewife acknowedges earlier flirtations with girl-girl sexuality. In this case, honesty is her
worst enemy. She opens a door to nothing but problems by innocently revealing her affair to
her husband, and then to her best friend.
If this tale took place in the era of
The Children's Hour it would
all be over for Lianna. As it is, Ruth has reason to be concerned about having her private
life made public. She does clinical psych research with children and an intolerant backlash
could ruin her career. 1
Caught unawares by Lianna's foolhardy candor, Ruth starts to disengage almost immediately.
For Linda, the revelation of her sexuality is an entire change of life. Escaping from her small-minded
husband is a victory, but
the cost is terrible. Dick uses Lianna's dirty secret as blackmail to get his way, forcing Lianna to leave
with nothing. She must take a small job and live in a dirty apartment while trying to figure out
how to regain the trust of her children.
The best development in Lianna is that the film doesn't devolve into a melodrama about scandals and faculty
witch hunts. The fear of such a thing happening is threat enough. A gay person like Ruth would
probably never know if being 'outed' were the cause of later academic problems. Even now, the country
is split on issues like this: What one couple
does in the open might have no negative effect at all on one campus, but spell disaster in
another academic setting.
Sayles instead concentrates on Lianna's isolation and pain. Her closest
friend Sandy drifts away. She finds a companion in a lesbian bar and in the process verifies that
she is indeed gay. A faculty friend (John Sayles) comes prowling for an easy score, reinforcing
Lianna's newly-discovered disillusion with men.
The conclusion carries an encouraging uplift. (slight spoiler) Lianna loses her lover but the conservative
Sandy finds the ability to overcome her fear and reaffirm her friendship. It's an impressive and
moving scene. Sayles sidesteps position statements and stresses intimate character touches.
Lianna doesn't ask us to condemn or condone anything, but simply to be understanding
and sympathetic with each other.
The acting is exemplary. Canadian Linda Griffiths has worked mostly in television since this film,
and the excellent
Jane Hallaren's upward progress waned after a couple of promising parts. One has to make the unpleasant
association that playing lesbians in Lianna earned them respect but more likely than not
put invisible limits on their commercial careers. 2
The capable Jo Henderson returned in Sayles' Matewan a couple of years later.
The only hint of awkwardness in Lianna is the film-school setting. Cinema studies seem even
flakier here than in other movies, providing easy wisdom about 'editing' the truth in documentaries,
and excuses for odd scenes with students running around filming a party with Eyemo 16mm cameras.
The professors use their students as easy conquests, something that I certainly saw happen in
my experience. Either the references are awkward, or I'm defensive about my own film school
background and it all cuts too close to home.
MGM's DVD of Lianna is an excellent rendering of a film that may have originally been shot
on 16mm. Can't tell, exactly, although some shots early on look a bit soft. The picture was a blurry
mess on early cable television but in this enhanced transfer has good color and image texture. The
soundtrack contains many attractive Judy Collins-type vocals and is a big plus. A cross-promoted
trailer for Casa de los Babys is on board as well.
A short interview featurette has Sayles and coproducer Maggie Renzi remembering the film but is too
short to go very deep. Sayles gets to express a lot more in his feature length commentary; his commentaries
are always a good listen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Very Good
Supplements: commentary, short interview-featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2003
1. (spoiler) Maybe it does,
and we don't know it. Ruth goes back to her home state to teach, and it's possible that besides
rejoining a former lover, she's responding to pressure
or hints of pressure. Ruth is so independent and thoughtful, it's altogether possible that she doesn't
want to burden Lianna with the problem. Or doesn't trust her to be discreet, which is understandable.
2. I met Jane Hallaren when she took my wife's language class,
even though I didn't know who she was until later. She's a fascinating and spirited lady - I have
to confess that I remembered her because she knew about actors in The Wild Bunch and told
me stories about them for 20 minutes!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson