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Lianna and her husband Dick have been married for a few years but the marriage isn't a happy one, since Dick treats her with arrogance. One day Lianna falls in love - with Ruth, a teacher. The people who know them act different: her husband with feelings of sexual betrayal, her children with curiosity and Lianna's friends with ambivalence. Written by
A woman develops romantic feelings for her (female) child psychology professor. A love affair ensues, and Lianna's life is transformed.
John Sayles' film is an attractive, well-made piece, perceptively analysing character and relationships in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small-town college campus. The location looks like upstate New York (Sayles is a native of Schenectady).
Lianna Massey is in her 30's and she has allowed life to happen to her. As a college student she drifted into a relationship with her teacher, Dick. Now she is married to him and they have two children. We see her doing the dull rounds, picking up the kids and waiting at the back of Dick's class to give him a ride home. Alone after the students leave, Lianna and Dick do not embrace. This is a loveless marriage. When Dick complains about Lianna entering his class, she hits back with, "Afraid you'll let them see you playing husband?" We now have Dick's measure. He is a philanderer who preys on undergraduates for sex.
Dick has exploited Lianna's passivity, shaping the marriage to his own advantage. Even the children are named after his favourite movie stars (Dick lectures in Film Studies). He attends campus parties alone, reasoning that he has to be seen at these functions if he is to get tenure. In fact, he is busy chasing student skirt. When Lianna shows up at one party unannounced and sees him romping in the sand box, her last bond of loyalty towards him is severed.
Ruth Brennan is an impressive woman. In her late 40's and a professor of Child Psychology, she is bright, good-looking and stylish, with plenty of wisdom and poise. She teaches an evening class for campus moms, and this is where Lianna meets her. Drawn to the urbane, understanding Ruth, Lianna makes clumsy attempts to ingratiate herself, offering to work as a research assistant and compiling lists of children's literature. While Dick is out of town attending the Toronto Film Festival, Lianna takes the opportunity to have dinner at Ruth's place.
Ruth is an experienced lesbian, but Lianna is not yet even aware that this is where the friendship is heading. As she prepares for the dinner date, we see Lianna decide, on a whim, to go bra-less. Her feelings are as yet inchoate, but we know that the relationship is about to become sexual.
The two women become lovers, but things do not work out as cosily as the naive Lianna had expected. She burns her boats with Dick, who shows that his hard intellect is coupled with a phenomenal mean streak. Lianna's friend Sandy, uncomprehendingly conventional in her outlook, rejects her. Even more ominously, Ruth proves to be an aloof, calculating lover. Lianna is dismayed to find that she can't move in with Ruth, because it would cause a scandal "here in faculty land". Suddenly Lianna is confronted with the stark reality of her new situation: her children stay with Dick while she has to find herself a job and a place to live. Ruth ends the research assistant arrangement, saying that it is inappropriate for a bed partner to be an employee. She asks Lianna not to call her by her first name in class. Worse still, Lianna learns of "the woman back home", Ruth's long-standing lover, who is still very much on the scene.
As the affair with Ruth fades and withers, Lianna has to feel her way painfully towards a new life for herself. We see her alone in her empty apartment, the plaintive whistle of the kettle representing the dull ache of her unhappiness. She has to cope with a dead-end job and brainless colleagues, having forsaken the easy life of a faculty mom and the sparkling wit of campus society. Her TV set becomes her life, the lame soap opera dialogue echoing her words to Ruth. The girl in the launderette is reading "The Well Of Loneliness". Lianna's meetings with her children are agonising for all concerned. Jerry the campus stud (played by Sayles) calls on the company-starved Lianna. She is delighted to see him until she realises that he is a shark, trying to exploit her vulnerability. When he is rebuffed, Jerry (typically) misses the point and rationalises it in self-referential terms: "My technique must be getting ragged."
Early on in the affair, Ruth had taken Lianna to a gay bar. The 'naughtiness' and the excitement of it had been a liberating experience for the Alberta girl. Now, she heads back to the bar merely to slough off her loneliness. When she ends up in bed with Cindy of the Women's Air Corps, Cindy points out that the two of them have little in common. "We have enough," replies Lianna bleakly.
There are plenty of strikingly clever moments in this impressive film. Sayles' crash-edited blackboard trick is memorable. Later, students try to film a drinks party, and Sayles comments ironically on their attempt by shooting the scene with a handheld camera. The dance show which Lianna stage-manages is a neat dramatisation of her predicament, and the beautiful Otis Redding music entirely apposite. The children are shown brilliantly to be 'in the middle' of the marriage breakdown as they sit on the sofa, eyes darting back and forth between mom and dad, like tennis spectators.
The telephone is used cleverly to symbolise communication breakdown. Dick slams the receiver down, signifying the death of the marriage, and Lianna fails to get any answers as she phones out from her beleaguered apartment.
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