John Sayles Collection: Lianna Review

This review contains plot spoilers

When she was a student, Lianna (Linda Griffiths) married her film studies lecturer, Dick Massey (Jon DeVries). Now, in her thirties, she is the mother of two children, Spencer (Jesse Solomon) and Theda (Jessica Wight MacDonald). She is also certain that Dick is having affairs with his students. Meanwhile, Lianna is taking night classes in child psychology run by Ruth Brennan (Jane Hallaren). A close friendship develops between the two women, and one evening at Ruth’s house, while Dick is away, they make love…

Lianna was John Sayles’s second feature as director, like Return of the Secaucus Seven also written and edited by him. It was shot in 16mm, blown up to 35mm for cinema distribution, with a cast of unknowns. Two years earlier, Robert Towne had written and directed Personal Best. To use a phrase not in currency at the time, it’s distinctly un-PC for a male filmmaker to deal with female sexuality, and in particular lesbianism – the pitfalls of voyeurism and pandering to male fantasies are obvious. In his film, Towne is not shy about it: he celebrates his characters’ (Olympic athletes) bodies in an almost fetishistic way, and has no qualms about showing full-frontal nudity in locker-room scenes, not to mention some graphic sex scenes. But (spoiler coming up) he ducks the issue: his central character (played by Mariel Hemingway) isn’t shown to be really lesbian, as she also has an affair with a man. (I’d call her bisexual, but that opens a whole can of worms in itself.)

Sayles is more discreet in his treatment. Although Lianna is seen in bed with female partners, there’s only one actual sex scene, which is a little artily shot (in silence apart from voices whispering in French). And in Lianna’s case, coming to terms with her sexuality is just part of creating a new identity for herself. A vital part of it, to be sure, but not the whole of it. Other parts of her identity – as a faculty wife, as an outsider (much is made of her conservative upbringing in Canada), as a mother, and as a friend – mutate and shift as well. We see her making her own way in the world: finding somewhere to live, a job in a supermarket checkout. The film begins with Lianna and her best friend Sandy (Jo Henderson) sitting on a bench in the children’s playground, talking as they watch their children play. The film ends the same way: by now much has changed, Lianna’s affair with Ruth has ended, and the future is uncertain, but some things, such as friendship, remain constant.

As with Secaucus Seven, the main strength of Lianna is the script, with dialogue that’s sharp, funny and an absolute pleasure to listen to. Visually the film isn’t much more than functional, but Sayles does occasionally do some interesting things. I’ve mentioned the sex scene. Shortly afterwards, there’s a lovely no-dialogue scene where Lianna walks down the street, noticing women as she passes them, as if for the first time. Much later in the film, as Lianna and Dick explain to their children that they are divorcing, Sayles keeps the camera on the children, bewildered expressions on their face, as offscreen Lianna and Dick’s voices constant interrupt each other. Sayles is to be commended for writing two thoroughly convincing children. Both named by their father after film stars, they react differently. Theda is confused and hurt, while Spencer tries to be worldly-wise (“So my old lady’s a dyke – so what?”). Sayles is generous to his characters, even to the local lothario (played by himself) who homes in as soon as Lianna moves out. The exception to this is Dick, who is shown to be more than a bit of a bastard. But, in a script full of quotable lines, Lianna has this put-down: “Just because you can argue better doesn’t make you right.”

Linda Griffiths makes a thoroughly engaging protagonist: she’s acting to this day, if mostly on TV, and I doubt she’s ever had a role as good as this one. Jane Hallaren has just the right edge of ambivalence as Ruth. Also notable is Sayles’s use of music, with Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” particularly well utilised in a late scene.

Lianna is released by Optimum as part of their three-film John Sayles Collection. At present it is not available separately. As with the other two films, the disc is single-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. Also like the others, it begins with textual credits dealing with the film’s restoration and preservation. Including distributor idents, this adds 45 seconds to the running time.

Although, like Secaucus Seven, Lianna was shot in 16mm, it was always intended to be shown in cinemas blown up to 35mm. To that end, the intended aspect ratio is 1.85:1. That’s the ratio of this DVD, but it is not anamorphic. Granted that owners of widescreen TVs can zoom the image, and also granted that this film will always look somewhat soft and grainy due to its lo-fi origins, but even so resolution is lost that could have been retained with widescreen enhancement. The image is a little dark in places, too.

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was originally heard in cinemas, and it’s just as well that dialogue is always clear as once again Optimum haven’t seen fit to provide us with subtitles. Nor any extras at all. I would have welcomed a Sayles commentary at least.

Lianna is a sensitively-observed, funny and moving film. Sayles would certainly grow as a director, and work with more established talent on both sides of the camera. Yet Lianna remains one of his best films, not to mention being a personal favourite of mine. An anamorphic picture would be nice, as would something in the way of extras, but at least the film survives.

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