lianna

1983

Written and Directed by John Sayles

In terms of lesbian film history, Lianna holds an interesting place. It was the film that dared, long before films dared. Not just that, but it was made by an up-and-coming director who could have made anything for his second film effort, but he chose to write and direct this interesting character study that not only deals with lesbian relationships, but touches on the entire lesbian sub-culture.

In the years before New Queer Cinema - the movement of queer, independent films that made up the early to mid nineties - John Sayles helped break new ground. The only other lesbian film of this calibre that had been made at this point was Personal Best, which was primarily a sports movie that examined female relationships. Lianna could arguably be seen as the first film in the lesbian coming out film genre.

The cool thing is, not only is Lianna a huge part of our film history, but unlike many other films made early on, it deserves its spot in the canon. The film is an astute, revealing, touching story about a woman who gets a second chance to decide her own fate and goes for it. However, every choice we make in life has consequences, and Lianna’s choices lead her to places she would never have expected to go.

Lianna is a faculty housewife in a University town and has been for fifteen years. She was a grad student who had an affair with her professor, and chose to drop out of school and marry him. Now they have a house, two children, and have settled into a life of status quo. Lianna resents the fact that she always has to justify any time she wants for herself, while her husband Dick, a frustrated film academic who has been repeatedly passed over for promotion and tenure, sets the terms and boundaries for their entire relationship.

Two events happen that force a change. First, Lianna enrols in a child psychology night class and develops a crush on her professor, Ruth. Around the same time Lianna arrives late to a faculty party one night only to see her husband screwing a student in the backyard. When she calls him on it Dick almost shrugs her off, claiming that he needs to think about their relationship. He heads off to a film festival in Toronto and leaves Lianna behind to contemplate her future.

Things take an unexpected turn for her when one night as she’s having dinner with Ruth, the professor boldly makes a pass at her. Lianna is overjoyed, and the two women become lovers. Ruth however is unprepared for the lengths to which Lianna is prepared to go to be with her. She leaves Dick, and her children, and embarks on a new life. Not only is Lianna sleeping with a woman, but she’s living alone and being independent for ths first time in her life, and nothing will ever be the same for her again.

Sayles takes us through a journey with Lianna, through the bitterness of first love and first loss and through the choice of hiding or of being open about her sexuality to her friends and family (especially her children). We see Lianna’s first lesbian experiences – the first time she admits to herself and to someone else that she’s a lesbian, the first time she visits a gay bar, and the first time she goes cruising (successfully) for women. We also witness her sorrow and loneliness as her existing support network collapses and she struggles to find people to replace the friends she has lost, both for emotional support and for simple companionship.

Lianna is a strong woman, and day by day even as she suffers through the isolation of her decision, her strength and resolve continue to grow. Each new experience with a woman opens her eyes to more possibilities. By the time the film ends we know undoubtedly that she will remain a lesbian for the rest of her life, and that all her struggles to be herself will pay off. Romantically the film does not offer us a happy ending, but in terms of life lessons the ending is a very positive one.

Initially, as with all films from the seventies and early eighties, it takes a few moments to get over the culture shock and to place the film in context in our minds. Films from this period have dated dramatically, and when watching any film from this period we need to largely ignore things like hairstyles and clothes, things that seem so out of place. Even in the lesbian bar scenes in the film I saw little that I recognised, even from when I was younger. The sex scenes are quite graphically realised for this time period, but as with all sex in films from this period the sex senes seem stilted and rather contrived.

What strikes me as remarkable though is that we still make films, twenty five years on, that use these same themes – fear of coming out, fear of rejection from our family and friends, fear of reprisal from school or work environments. I mean really, the dialogue from this film should be almost laughable by now. We should be looking back at films like this and thinking “God, I feel so sorry for the women back then who had to go through that, who had to spend their lives hiding.” It isn’t as though we can completely disregard the fear of homophobia in our society. We absolutely can’t, and with a bit of a fashion update and a few better haircuts this film could be playing today and still be far more relevant than we’d like to admit. How far has society really come, anyway?

Lianna is an ageless heroine. She’s a fighter, and we still have a lot to learn from her story and her struggle to live her own life, to be free from the oppressive influence of her husband. There's also a lot still to like about her story of loneliness and how she manages to survive this enormous disruption to her life that she could never have foreseen, but takes on bravely anyhow. She could have continued along and never been true to herself, but she didn't.

Also, John Sayles could have chosen to make a perfectly normal, heterosexual film, but he didn't. Lianna is something all lovers of dyke film should experience, just to get a glimpse of where it all came from, and to be grateful that as a culture we've moved on to bigger and better things in so many ways. A lot of indie filmmakers today could learn a lot from this film, especially in terms of how Sayles's remarkable script is able to subtly get inside the hearts and minds of his characters in a way that's all-too rare.

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