Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: "Lianna" is a Great and Groundbreaking Film That Should Not Be Lost (Happy B'day, John Sayles)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 44 (of 2004) by Leroy Douresseaux

Lianna (1983)
Running time: 110 minutes (1 hour, 50 minutes)
PRODUCERS: Jeffrey Nelson and Maggie Renzi
COMPOSER: Mason Daring


Starring: Linda Griffiths, Jane Hallaren, Jon DeVries, Jo Henderson, Jessica Wight MacDonald, Jesse Solomon, John Sayles, Stephen Mendillo, Betsy Julia Robinson, Nancy Mette, and Maggie Renzi

Lianna was acclaimed independent filmmaker John Sayles second feature directorial effort. It’s the story of Lianna (Linda Griffiths), a wife and mother of two children who falls in love with another woman. Her marriage to Dick (Jon DeVries), an English professor, isn’t a happy one since Dick is mostly arrogant towards her and cheats on Lianna with his female students. Lianna eventually falls in love with her professor Ruth (Jane Hallaren). The relationship is not only a revelation for Lianna, but it’s also an awakening of long dormant feelings she’s had since she was in her early teens.

Lianna leaves her marriage for Ruth, and that throws her life into a kind of tailspin. The philandering Dick feels sexually betrayed, while Lianna’s children, Spencer (Jesse Solomon) and Theda (Jessica Wight MacDonald), are curious, hurt, and confused. Lianna’s friends and associates are not hostile to her because of the change, but they’re either distant or ambivalent. Things get a little hairy when Ruth starts to take up a prior lesbian relationship that still has life in it. That drives a wedge between her and Lianna, who often succumbs to bouts of loneliness.

The performances are wonderful and rich, though they seem a bit stiff early in the film. I give most of the credit to Sayles, who has a knack for getting us in close to the characters, giving us an intimate view of their lives. His method, although unobtrusive, is actually kind of controlling. He has an intense focus on being true to the writing and letting the actors play out what they pick up from the written page. This is his way of making us focus on the drama. His filmmaking is free of eye candy and pyrotechnics, so he leaves the audience only the bare bones of drama, which is quite a meal in itself.

Another great thing about his films is that they seem so real. It’s as if a John Sayles picture is actually a peak into the lives of real characters. There is no phoniness in his films, and the questions raised by each film have no easy or obvious answers. Still, Sayles has way of making us glue ourselves to the picture, and Liana is one of his best efforts. It’s also a non-sensational and rather matter-of-fact look at a straight married woman in the throes of a burgeoning attraction to the same sex.

Lianna is scandalous without the noise, and it’s passionate without being tawdry. Most of all, it is human and real while still being drama. I wish that Sayles would have given us a deeper look at the impact of Lianna’s affair with another woman on her children, but what Sayles does give us is quality work.

9 of 10


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