While not nearly as commercially successful as her American female counterparts, Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema has made a significant artistic impact with her handful of feature films, beginning with her unique debut film, the 1987 I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and the very different Jane Austen adaptation of Mansfield Park. But her 1995 hidden gem film When Night Is Falling was a fascinating and tender look at the coming out and awakening of a female mythology professor at a conservative Christian college.
Pascale Bussieres stars as Camille Baker, who with her boyfriend and fellow college professor Martin Bergan (Henry Czerny), are in line for tenure and a position of possible co-chaplains at their conservative school. The present head of the school, Reverend DeBoer, warns them that the present non-married status may be looked down on for their potential promotion.
One day while mourning the death of her pet dog, Camille is despondently washing her cloths at a community launder mat, when a performance artist, magician/circus performer Petra Soft (Racheal Crawford) comforts and befriends her. When some of their clean laundry gets mixed up Camille calls Petra and reluctantly begins a truly awakening relationship that will challenge her status with her fiancé Martin and her position with the school.
After one tender kiss on an apartment doorstep, Camille retreats and offers to be “just friends…like Thelma and Louise, without the guns”, but Camille changes her mind. Rozema, who wrote her own screenplay, clearly confronts many of the social taboos of a same sex relationship, without the clichéd conventions and frequently tragic options gay characters face. She explicitly explores various erotic possibilities of the liberation of such an affair can bring to a rather repressed woman.
Camille’s new realization of passion is visualized in several ways from a hang gliding excursion , a recurrent flight image from her heroine Polly in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, and a sensually, sexual rendezvous with Petra, while two other women perform a trapeze act high above them. Tensions rise when Camille confesses her confused passions to the school’s head, Petra’s circus plans to leave town and Martin discovers Camille with Petra. Rozema’s somewhat abrupt ending offers even fascinating, if not fantastic possibilities, for a resurrection and true freedom.