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Way back in 1982, before television and movies became enamored with featuring photogenic lesbians as gimmicky secondary characters or offered straight girls walking on the wild side (cf. Kissing Jessica Stein), director John Sayles made a little-seen film called Lianna. The tale of an unhappy professor's wife (played with intense earnestness by Linda Griffiths) who discovers, as her marriage falls apart, that she's attracted to women, is more a story of self-discovery than a titillating take on Sapphic love, marked by Sayles' usual attention to character detail and unexpected-but-realistic dialogue. When mousy Liana tells her philandering husband (Jon De Vries) that she's having an affair, he's uncaring and dismissive — until she tells him that it's with a woman, and then all hell breaks loose. Having to recreate her life almost entirely from scratch — finding a job, an apartment, new friends — Lianna's journey is painful yet brave. Sayles, even in his second film, has never been one to give his characters trite, easy answers, and Lianna shines precisely because it doesn't shy away from examining the difficult path that Lianna's choices have forced her to take — but without ever suggesting that she should do anything other than follow her heart. A film that might have been groundbreaking had more people actually seen it, Lianna was given a limited art-house release and has been largely unavailable on video until now. It's very dated (the music, especially), often awkwardly paced, and obviously the work of a filmmaker still finding his way. But it's still head-and-shoulders above other '80s "coming out" films and worth a look by anyone who admires Sayles but hasn't had the opportunity to see this early work until now. MGM (with IFC Films) offers a very clean, bright anamorphic transfer (1.70:1) of Lianna, but the picture does betray its low-budget roots — unable to raise the money to shoot in 35mm, the movie (budgeted at $300,000) was committed to 16mm. The monaural audio is very clean but also suffers a bit from the film's original format. Sayles' commentary track — like all of his commentaries — is excellent, offering an extensive amount of background information on casting, budgets, shooting, and a lot of fascinating, scene-specific detail. A new nine-minute featurette with Sayles and life-slash-producing partner Maggie Renzi features the filmmakers discussing the challenges of getting money for their movie in an era where producers were squeamish about the subject matter, as well as the work done behind the scenes. Trailer for Sayles' Casa de los Babys, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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