Director. Most prominent of English Canadian lesbian feature filmmakers, Rozema has Southwestern Ontario Dutch Calvinist roots which surfaced in the repressive settings in which the married heroine of When Night is Falling (1995) discovers the lesbian within. Trained in college theatre and on American TV/film sets, Rozema’s first short Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985, 28), a first person breakup drama, was notoriously cagey about gendered pronouns, and in fact Rozema would only come out publicly in 1999.
Rozema’s ambiguity dissipated only a little with her first feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987, 81), the international box office hit that catapulted her into the Canadian canon, a whimsical postmodern fable of a Toronto office gal who fantasizes of art, romance, identity and flying. This low-budget first feature by an unknown director was the Canadian sleeper success story of the 1980s, as much in the reviews as at the box office, all the more so since it was the most forthright and successful lesbian film on the national scene in English to date. The heroine Polly, played by a pert and charismatic comic genius, the queer-friendly Sheila McCarthy, develops a crush on her lesbian boss, and expresses herself both through her dreams of Victorian ladies’ picnics and her camera lens. Queer media welcomed the film eagerly but its ambiguities created controversy at the same time: The Advocate welcomed Mermaids’ “laissez-faire lesbianian” with its “just happens to be... not a problem.... casual, offhand” treatment (7 Sept. 1987), while the more political Gay Community News “cringed” at the director’s insistence that the film was “not about” lesbianism or dykes (Sept. 1987). Mermaids holds up well two decades later despite some 1980s video diary mannerisms and maintains its place as a milestone in Canadian queer cinemas. Co-producer was Alex Raffé, with whom a fertile artistic relationship would continue.
When Night is Falling (Toronto, 1995, 93) was another major landmark, a coming out melodrama that is an international queer festival favorite. Applauded by mainstream critics and queer audiences, as well as boffo at the art cinema box office, Rozema’s torrid romance between a theology professor and a circus performer has everything you could want: stars (Pascale Bussières, Rachael Crawford, and Henry Czerny, all delivering superbly), a coming-out narrative, an (underplayed) racial theme, even heteroeroticism between Bussières and her soon-to-be-abandoned fiancé that is almost as hot as the now legendary same-sex steamorama. Xtra! opined that Rozema’s “refusal to vilify the straight white men, will annoy those who prefer a simpler, less messy political spectrum” (28 April 1995). Not everyone’s cup of tea are Rozema’s tortured Calvinist triangle nor her magic realism (from the laundromat to the big top and a frozen puppy that comes to life when love is reborn!), but all the elements come together so well that the seduction was almost universal. The Lesbian Film Guide effused :
Superb, captivating, tender, often funny and frequently beautiful.... like a lyrical poem, deeply felt and perfectly formed. Rich, vibrant colours, romantic images–naked women swimming in clear blue water–a dusting of snow, a half-moon and always the night just a moment away... Unmissable.
Did anyone ever say all of that about Desert Hearts? After Night, Rozema moved back and forth among a successful major studio Jane Austen adaptation (Mansfield Park, 1999) and an assortment of Toronto shorts, including an artful first person segment in Nik Sheehan ’s Symposium: Ladder of Love (1996).
(1) Darren, Alison. 2000. Lesbian Film Guide . London: Cassell. 219.