2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Ciara Pitts on John Sayles’ ‘Lianna’

Movies that center lesbian identity are easily my favorite corner of cinema, as they represent the individuals and culture of which I couldn’t be my true self without. There are tons of sapphic films I’ve enjoyed throughout the years, but only a few of them have truly lived with me, never escaping my mind while deepening my outlook on life and human experiences. Among the films that achieved this blissful sensation is John Sayles’ second film Lianna, one of the first features in American cinema to take on a lesbian narrative. Released in 1983, the drama examines a woman’s realization that she’s gay, as well as the ups and downs of what that can entail. The screenplay feels realistic, a result of Sayles basing his characters on accounts from women who came out as lesbians during this time. Lianna doesn’t merely tell its narrative but rather explores it, approaching the intricacies with truth, depth and compassion.

Linda Griffiths plays the titular character, a 30-year-old mother of two from a modest New Jersey town. She’s in a tense, unhappy marriage with her husband Dick (Jon DeVries), who becomes irritated with her decision to take night classes instead of fitting into his idea of a housewife. As Lianna’s interest in her child psychology class grows, a crush arises on her instructor, Ruth (Jane Hallaren). After discovering another one of Dick’s many infidelities, Lianna embarks on an affair of her own with Ruth — not in retaliation, but to take control of her life. Lianna tells Dick about it, expressing no regret, and the two of them agree to separate. This marks the inception of Lianna beginning to rebuild her world while learning more about her sexual identity.

In a captivating moment, Lianna tells Ruth about her first crush, which happened to be on her female camp counselor. By reminiscing on those thoughts out loud, she learns more about her true identity with every materialized word. Her facial expressions and attention to detail display how crucial those feelings are to her, and she can recall all of them as if they were experienced recently — not years back. The memories give way to an awakening, as Lianna becomes aware that her attraction to women has always existed, and has already normalized inside her mind. Lianna’s truth was there all along– she just needs to reach in and grab it.

Lianna and Ruth’s connection is tender and exciting at first, but the former ultimately craves something deeper that can’t be reciprocated. Due to worrying that her career will be jeopardized because she’s a lesbian, Ruth gets to be more and more distant, causing Lianna to deal with further confusion about romance and its various meanings. Does love remain beautiful if it can’t be conveyed openly? Lianna certainly appears to think not. Ruth’s apprehension might be a letdown for viewers, but for a film made in the 80s, it’s especially important to accurately reflect the fears of lesbians who didn’t want to come out of the closet, afraid of the backlash it frequently comes with.

As another impressive reflection of gay life, Lianna’s lesbian bar sequence is one of the film’s most unforgettable events. Lianna arrives anxious, convinced that everyone is ogling at her as soon as she walks through the door. Eventually, her anxiety wanes, compelling her to dance with other women under the dim, multi-colored lights; a celebration of life, identity and community. These bars are essential for lesbian culture, as they’re the only place where many women can be themselves. Other lesbian films that include them — like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color and the Wachowski’s Bound, for example — usually do so briefly, using the location only for an interaction or to accentuate minor character details. But Lianna’s depiction allows the audience to understand the importance of these spaces, highlighting its vibrant energy and guests who deserve the euphoria of feeling comfortable in their own skin. The day after Lianna’s first bar visit, the camera trails her as she gazes with admiration at all of the women she walks by. This indicates how her world has changed now that she’s acknowledging her gayness; Lianna embraces her no-longer-repressed attraction with utter confidence.

Much like in Radclyffe Hall’s groundbreaking lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (which Sayles references), Lianna encounters a loneliness of her own. Though she’s now reveling in her sexuality, her experience suggests that self-discovery can be both liberating and isolating. Once her lesbianism becomes known, her best friend Sandy (Jo Henderson) has trouble accepting it, Lianna’s relationship with her children alters and confiding in Ruth about everything is out of the question, as they’ve grown apart. While it’s distressing, the isolation gives Lianna room to explore and learn more about her desires and inner self. To her, it may feel like she’s lost everything at this time, but it’s quite the contrary — she hasn’t lost who she is. The emptiness is temporary, as the assurance in her identity continues to enliven her. The various dynamics in Lianna’s life not only demonstrate effective character development, but also the resilience in how she tackles and copes with the changes around her. She exhibits bravery the entire way through, just like many real-life gay women who gave up everything to live their truth. When grasping inner strength in the face of desolation, life’s challenges can be conquered with just a little more ease.

Sayles’ wonderful gem might not receive the attention it deserves — even in the realm of LGBTQ cinema — but it contains a message that undoubtedly resonates today: no one needs to apologize for who they love. Romance is obviously an element of the film, but it never dominates the narrative’s essence of diving into an emotional, unique experience. Though traditional in terms of cinematography, the film’s memorable dialogue and a calming atmosphere complement the moods and crucial events. Lianna beautifully examines a woman learning to love herself, inspiring an eagerness within the audience to care more about the character’s journey as it expands.

Watch ‘Lianna’ at FilmStruck.

Ciara Pitts (@CiaraNPitts) is a lesbian freelance writer with an obsession for film analysis and LGBTQ+ cinema. Her other interests include alternative music and endless rewatches of Thelma. She has previously written for AfterEllen and GO Magazine.

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