“When Night Is Falling” is the ultimate proof that ravishing photography, crisp cutting and a finely wrought score can’t paper over a feeble script. Audiences prepared to check their brains at the door may give this fanciful, color-supplement lesbian drama early legs, but night should fall pretty fast on this corny Canuck item’s theatrical outlook, once the word gets out.
The warning signs come early on, with a main-title underwater fantasy that’s torn straight from the pages of Playboy. Camille (Pascale Bussieres), mythology prof at a stern Protestant college, dotes on a dog called Bob and has been going three years with Martin (HenryCzerny), a careerist theologian. Martin is keen for them both to get the chaplaincy at their college, but college head Rev. DeBoer (David Fox) insists they marry and be above reproach.
Distraught from losing her dog in a street accident, the beautiful Camille gets her clothes and feelings mixed up with those of the equally beautiful Petra at the laundromat one day. Discovering Petra’s name card in the duds, Camille visits her workplace, a traveling avant-garde circus in a deserted warehouse.
Over drinks in her exotically decorated trailer, Petra (Rachael Crawford) makes advances to the coy Camille and admits she deliberately switched washes so she could see her again. “I’d love to see you in the moonlight with your body thrown back and your hair on fire,” admits Petra before Camille ankles, understandably confused.
Following Petra’s romantic stakeout of Camille’s apartment, and an exploratory kiss in the lobby, Camille stresses she’s “not like that” and asks to remain simply friends. Petra reluctantly agrees, and invites her to go hang-gliding.
When Camille injures herself, Petra attempts another seduction under the guise of massaging the tender spots, but the duo are interrupted by a house call from Rev. DeBoer.
After almost an hour of pussy-footing around, the women finally get it on in a lyrical love scene at Petra’s place, intercut with an equally lyrical sequence of two femme acrobats entwined around each other and a trapeze. Determined to make a clean breast of it, Camille confesses her bisexuality to Rev. DeBoer, who admits he’s a bit of an old homophobe.
While Martin is away, the women continue their rapturous affair. “I love your sex, I love your wisdom, and the way you say ‘switcheroo,'” croons Petra. When Martin discovers what Camille is up to, and financial difficulties force the circus to leave town, the mythology prof is faced with some tough personal choices.
To judge by the laughable dialogue and totally unbelievable central relationship, director Patricia Rozema is clearly intent on creating a self-contained, semi-magical universe that takes its cue from the circus world in which Petra lives. Even on that level, however, the movie fails to work: There’s none of the magic or “realist-fantasy” tone Rozema fitfully conveyed in the earlier “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” and little-seen “White Room.”
Despite all the immaculate production values and beautiful lead thesps, the movie remains obstinately bloodless, passionless and, perhaps worst of all, unerotic. The one major love scene between the women is a rhapsody of shadow and burnished light but tame by contempo standards.
As the college prof, Bussieres remains pert, photogenic and a complete mystery as far as motivation goes. The dusky Crawford is no more than a cipher. If these characters ever cried, they’d weep glycerin. Other perfs are standard within the confines of the writing.
Pic ends with a hilarious sequence, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in which Bob the Dog is resurrected from his snowy grave and runs into the sunset.
The film’s title is drawn from a passage in Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” in which dusk is seen as the last chance for happiness before evil takes over the world at night.