Lesbian director Patricia Rozema reflects on her filmmaking work

Patricia Rozema
Patricia Rozema
George Pimentel

A retrospective of films by the pioneering lesbian writer/director Patricia Rozema features 4K restorations of several of her features, including her debut, 1987’s “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” a cult film about a Polly (Sheila McCarthy) a “person Friday” who gets into a lesbian love triangle with her boss. The retrospective will give viewers the rare opportunity to see the director’s sophomore film, “White Room,” from 1990, an intriguing mystery/fairy tale in which Norm (Maurice Godin) accidentally sees the rape and murder of pop singer Madelaine X (Margot Kidder) and connects with another woman, Jane (Kate Nelligan) in an effort to determine what actually happened. 

The program will also feature the NC-17 cut of her 1995 lesbian romance, “When Night Is Falling,” which depicts the unexpected relationship between Camille (Pascale Bussières), a teacher at a religious college and Petra Soft (Rachel Crawford), a circus performer.

Rounding out the program is Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” and her latest feature, “Mouthpiece,” made in 2018, about the 30-year-old Cassandra (played by both Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava) grappling with the sudden death of her mother, Elaine (an excellent Maev Beaty). 

Rozema spoke with Gay City News about her films in a recent interview.

What, to you, makes a film a “Patricia Rozema” film? Is there a constant in your work?

I do privilege the female perspective. Even in “White Room,” that male character was an experiment of me placing myself into a male character — someone called that “queer coded,” but that’s for others to debate. I love magic, and playing with a poetic reality but a grounded performance and psychology to get those things in one place is exciting to me. I think of all my films as very different from each other, which probably made it hard for others to say, “That’s the Rozema agenda,” other than queer positive and female positive. My films are all over the map, which is fun for me. I try to keep myself genuinely engaged.

I am struck by the flights of fancy in most of your films. Can you talk about the “fairy-tale” quality of your work and how you incorporate magical realism, especially in “White Room?”

“White Room” was a very strange personal agenda in that I wanted it to be a journey through genres. It’s an urban comedy that becomes a murder mystery that becomes a pastoral romance that becomes thriller-y again, then it is a fairy tale. That to me was an exciting journey to take people on. I feel our deepest selves and motivations are not very visible or available to us in our conscious mind. We don’t understand each other. Our causal relations in stories — this happened to us as a child, then we did this and became that — simplifies us. I like the fairy tale and the idea of transcendence. There is something fundamental to us that needs those stories. 

What observations do you have about your protagonists who all seem to step out of their comfort zones?

I think of it as bifurcation. That is common in my work. In “Mouthpiece,” I literally have two people playing one person. In “Mermaids,” you have the artist who is the front person and one who is the maker. And in “White Room” who have the singer and the lip-syncher. I think that comes from growing up as a lesbian in a Dutch Calvinist community. I had to be two selves to survive at all.  

It’s very much what queer people go through with the private and public selves… 

The private self is the white room, a place that is so pure and where you are honest. 

Your films all have a literary quality to them. “Mansfield Park” is adapted from a novel, and “Mouthpiece” is a reimagining of a play. Can you talk about why you write some of your films and adapt others?

It affects me and I can connect to it somehow and I don’t fully understand why. I was sent the book, “Mansfield Park” by Harvey Weinstein. I thought [sarcastically] this is another period piece tea party where the girl gets the right guy to rescue her financially — great! I don’t want to do it. But then I read it anyway, due diligence, and I was feeling furious on the part of main character being treated like luggage. Then I read around the story, and Edward Said and about slavery, and I felt that is an interesting addition to the Austen way of thinking. I felt something for Fanny the “not good enough” feeling and I was intellectually and historically excited and felt like I could do something and add something. What do we owe those cultures that we ravaged to be as rich as we are?

I found your films to be very sensual — I could feel the warmth of Petra peeling the nylons off Camille’s legs in “When Night Is Falling,” the sterility of the “White Room,” and the messiness of “Mouthpiece.” You also use lighting and color to create a mood. Can you talk about that and creating your visuals?

The camera has to inhabit the personality of your main character. Usually that is fairly tight first-person narratives. Every choice has to reflect that. In “When Night Is Falling,” she’s falling in love, and is sexually attracted to someone, so sensuality is everything. We picked a film stock that was kindest to skin tones. I told the sound mixer, “Warm chocolate.” “White Room” was cooler and more detached because he’s not connected to himself. “Mouthpiece,” I don’t know what the inside of your head looks like, but I don’t have sepia pasts in my mind. I wanted it to feel as chaotic as a mind in crisis feels like to me. That was the look. Everything has to reflect the intent, and the intent has to be deeply connected to the protagonist.

A character in “White Room” says, “Every story needs a tender love scene.” All of your films include love scenes. Can you discuss shooting them? 

I like shooting love scenes. We think about these things, and if art is to delve into what we care about and think about, it should go there, too. The large Puritanical streak in North America has made sex dirty. I find that sad. It’s done so badly and awkwardly so often. I try to make it feel realistic. I am often the intimacy coordinator on my films — this is what I will do and what you will see. If you don’t feel it, that’s fine. I love doing it. It’s choreography. You plan the moves. I put music on and turn the sound off. It’s an ecstatic state if it is truly a love scene. It’s a place of play and love and I don’t see that presented very often. It was shocking to me that “When Night Is Falling” was released, it got the newly minted NC-17. This retrospective is showing the director’s cut. 

You have made some lesbian-themed films, but several of your films are not queer. Is there pressure for you as a filmmaker to take certain projects, and do you want to tell more lesbian stories?

I feel when you are creating a character, you are slipping into someone else’s soul. It’s not that much of a stretch to slip into a male character. I did it in “White Room,” which was an experiment for me. But I figure, the world is awash in stories about guys, if I do story about guys, who is going to tell female stories? Early on, I was talking about a continuum that made some lesbian academics disappointed in me because it wasn’t a binary straight/gay. I couldn’t adopt that attitude. But there is room for that thinking now. My new thing is that there has to be some queer positive element in everything I do. It is limiting to say this is who you are because of who you are attracted to. It’s a big piece, but not the only piece. I’d like to do more lesbian stories. When I made “When Night Is Falling,” I was aware I was doing a kind of a coming out story. I wanted to do a classical romance. I wanted to do something that was very beautiful. It’s my most conventional films in terms of storytelling. Because I knew the story would be a bit of a hurdle for straight audiences at the time and I didn’t want to only have a gay audience. Although it would have been deeply heartbreaking if I didn’t have a gay audience. That was the priority. I say that, but the priority is pleasing myself — making that film I haven’t seen yet. If it pleases me, I have a chance at pleasing other people.  

“Films of Patricia Rozema—A Retrospective” | At the Roxy Tribeca April 5-11

New York Screenings / Q&As

7:15PM Friday April 5th / White Room 

5:15PM Saturday April 6th / Mansfield Park

7:30PM Saturday April 6th / When Night Is Falling

5:15PM Sunday April 7th / Mouthpiece