A desert heart isn't at all appealing to Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger. First, all the sand would get stuck in the valves—and cactus spines in the aorta just doesn't sound comfortable.
"He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart."—Frances
Desert Hearts is a good flick. It also happens to be a serious lesbian film, one that single-handedly plucked the genre out of a cesspool of lurid, campy efforts like That Tender Touch and Just the Two of Us. As director Donna Deitch suggests in her director commentary, lesbian films before Desert Hearts ended in suicide or a bisexual menagé a trois. The status of post-Desert Hearts lesbian films is debatable, but at least fans of GLBT cinema will always have Desert Hearts as a watermark.
Facts of the Case
An emotionally reserved professor from New York named Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver, We All Fall Down) comes to Reno to get a divorce. She stays at a ranch owned by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley, Three's Company), a former dancer who is now a hypochondriac swimming in regret. There Vivian meets Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau, Kiss the Sky), a wild, carefree young woman who doesn't hide her preference for women. Though Vivian fights it, she is attracted to Cay. Unfortunately, life is not as simple as kiss-and-don't-tell.
Context is everything, particularly where dialogue is concerned. Take The Charge for example: "He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart." I read those words on IMDb while filling in the routine info for this review and the line seemed maudlin. But when Audra Lindley uttered the words I felt a pang of emotion in my chest. She imbues the line with such world weariness and cherished memories of joy. I rewound and watched the line again. It was no less effective; in fact there was now a 60 percent chance of teardrops in the forecast. I'm ice cold when it comes to movie manipulation, so such a reaction rarely takes place on Judge Rob's couch.
And I'm not even a lesbian. Given the emotional impact of this film on a straight-laced straight guy, it must have even more impact on gay women who can identify with the situations and the characters. Deitch emphasizes realism and the film is richer for it. There's attraction, yes, but laced with confusion, denial, and social concerns. There is sex—is there ever—but there's also hostility and hurt feelings. Deitch presents no simple answers, but she asks interesting questions with a careful, compassionate tone.
Let's talk about the sex, because let's be honest: GLBT cinema has a lot of it. The difference between the sex scene in Desert Hearts and the sex scenes in almost every other movie ever made is that this one is properly established. In fact, you could call the hour leading up to the scene foreplay. That's a gross simplification of character establishment and development, but the groundwork is always there. Glints in Cay's eyes and sharp breaths from Vivian are subtle clues, as are occasional moments of euphoria they have in each other's presence. The increasingly hostile reactions from straight folk, Cay's increasing interest, and Vivian's increasing attempts to clamp down—well, if you're keeping track, that's a lot of increasing. Something has to bend, break, or melt to ease the crescendo.
When their physical contact comes, it is the culmination of many threads: Cay finally asserting her own wishes, Vivian finally accepting hers. The scene is artfully composed and executed, beginning around a corner and ending on a close-up of a quiet, potent orgasm. In between are poignant scenes of emotional release, physical connection, and plain old lust. The moment is well worth the buildup. The aftermath is relatively brief and filled with conflict. It ends with no real resolution, though you can picture real-world relationships ending in just that way.
The cast is largely responsible for the film's success. Deitch did not have a large budget, so the camera is either on the immense beauty of the desert or on the faces of the characters. Helen Shaver's Vivian is nearly post-traumatic when it comes to relationships, though she makes it clear that her husband has always been kind. Her conflict is internal, a disconnect between what she wants and what society says she wants. Shaver gets this idea across with a combination of arch detachment and quiet desperation. She is fragile.
Patricia Charbonneau is explosive as Cay. Her interview in the extras provides no hint of Cay's emotional potency. Patricia seems like a poised, studious observer. She doesn't say much that isn't a reflection of Deitch's questions and recollections. But on camera as Cay, she is nearly feral in her joy and dynamic in the presence of other people.
Celebrity spotters will delight in a young, bolo-wearing Jeffrey Tambor (hey, he had to get a head start on those desert land developments somewhere!) and pre-Trek Denise Crosby.
Artful composition and a good cast are buoyed by a pitch-perfect soundtrack. Reno and its Western-tinged echoes of pain and regret ooze from every note. This is a serious soundtrack that must have benefited from less-expensive soundtrack rights; today, a track list featuring Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Ella Fitzgerald would consume an indie film's budget.
Wolfe Video has done right by the film in this two-disc DVD set. The transfer is a tad too dark, but the rich jewel tones of the desert sky and casino neon come though clearly. Dusky cinematography is adequately served by a slight grain and a transfer free of excessive edge enhancement. The aforementioned world-class songs pour from the speakers with enveloping warmth. Dialogue sometimes sounds thin, and there are frequent dropouts in the audio, particularly near the end of the film.
Donna Deitch gives a stilted and formal, but informative, commentary where she speaks to the whys and hows. She explains her rationale for casting, dialogue, and even specific pieces of furniture. After about six minutes, her commentary becomes riddled with gaps, but she has many rich insights for those interested. Deitch fares much better in the one-on-one interviews with her stars, both of whom seem to hold the film in high regard and appreciate its groundbreaking qualities. Shaver is particularly witty, coining the phrase "my nipple needs another take!" A reunion of the two would have been perfect, but this is pretty good.
The best extra is raw footage of the love scene, and not just because more skin is exposed. This extra shows exactly what went into the creation of this scene, including camera coverage, different angles they tried, and the actresses helping each other through the scene. Deitch occasionally gives direction. You can really feel the vibe on set and see how it translated to film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't let me blow things out of proportion. Desert Hearts is not a great film. It suffers many quirks of low-budget indie filmmaking, such as rushed shots and clunky dialogue that a large post-production budget or reshoots could have addressed. There is no subtlety to the plot either. It is a straightforward dramatic arc: _/\.
If not for the amazing sex scene and the resetting of the bar for lesbian cinema, Desert Hearts would be a footnote with two good acting performances and a great soundtrack. But the scene is there, the buildup is worth it, and the performances are compelling. Wolfe Video adds value with a decent transfer and worthwhile extras, which makes this an easy recommendation for fans of lesbian cinema or plain old drama.
Desert Hearts is innocent of the charge of having cheatin' on its mind.
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