By Mike Dub
Lianna, the title character of John Sayles’ rich, graceful 1983 romantic drama, is a woman who has two teachers in her life. The first is her husband, Dick, a college film professor, with whom she began an affair when Lianna was still his student. Now, two kids and fifteen years into their marriage, the flame has been noticeably snuffed. Dick devotes nearly all of his time to schmoozing faculty in a desperate search for tenure, and Lianna prepares for sex by heading to the bathroom with a dispassionate, “I’ll put my thing in.”
Her other teacher is Ruth, a pretty blonde who teaches a Child Psychology class at the school where Dick works. Bored and aimless, Lianna, in her own mind, is another one of the rudderless faculty housewives who spends their time taking classes to get out of the house under the façade of autonomy from their families. Ruth’s Psych class has become, “by far,” Lianna’s favorite of all the classes she has taken. When Lianna offers her services as a research assistant, her best friend Sandy even jokes, “You must have a crush on her.”
As it turns out, she’s more right than she knows. What follows is a sensitive, personal, complex story of self-discovery and determination. Without even a hint of the self-pity so common in films about gays and lesbians, particularly up until that point, Lianna accepts her sexuality, sparking her independence from housewife servitude to fully formed woman.
With Ruth as her lesbian tutor, Lianna navigates her first experience at a lesbian bar, her first dance with a woman, her first one-night stand. Though free from social constraints in the privacy of their homes or gay bars, Ruth constantly instructs Lianna to hide her feelings in public: to keep her voice down when speaking affectionately, to not hold hands in public, to “be a little less happy” to see her when they walk down the street. When Lianna’s marriage falls apart, she goes to see Ruth at the college, who explains painfully, “Right now, I want to put my arms around you. If we were straight friends, I would have.”
All of Lianna’s experiences are laid out in the naturalistic tones of everyday life. There are no long, preachy monologues about acceptance (the closest the movie ever comes to one involves the college football coach reasoning, “It seems all right when women do it”). Some of her friends avoid her, though out of discomfort rather than villainy. There are no grand protests from small-minded bigots against Ruth teaching at the college (though the affair does have an impact on her career). Even when we discover that Dick is having an affair with one of his current students, we loathe the younger girl not because she is the typical heartless bitch, but because she is writing an asinine film thesis entitled “Audie Murphy, America’s Tragic Hero.”
Lianna balances a difficult line for a film with this subject matter. Mostly apolitical in tone, Sayles allows Lianna’s personal story to speak for itself, the humanity of which demands a character instead of an archetype. As Sayles said once, “The film is called Lianna, not An Unmarried Gay Woman… She’s not made to represent all gay women.” In fact, Lianna’s sexuality is merely one aspect of her maturation into a fully formed, independent woman. Thrown out of her house, she must find a job; ostracized from her social circle, she must find new friends; and even though she is a lesbian, she must still deal with the trials of a romantic relationship.
The two greatest influences on Lianna are her the two teachers who awakened her sexuality. Her first teacher molds her into a model of hetero-normative behavior; the second one sparks passion and self-discovery. Ultimately, Ruth provides the greatest service a teacher can: preparing a student for life on her own.