The year is 1959. The location: a desert highway outside the sleepy gambling town of Reno, Nev. Rockabilly music plays on a car radio. A sun-baked black convertible with whitewall tires cruises under a wide-screen sky. Suddenly, the car screeches to a stop, then speeds backwards down the road as its driver races to catch up to a woman riding in a car going the other way. The scene could belong to any kind of movie romance set in the nostalgic West, but in Desert Hearts the lovers are both female. The film marks a departure from Hollywood convention, which usually creates a pretext for homosexuality to hide behind: 1982’s Personal Best, starring Mariel Hemingway, treated sex as a physical consequence of athletic competition. By contrast, Desert Hearts, independently produced and directed by California’s Donna Deitch on a slim budget of $1.5 million, is a bravely unembellished story of emotional and erotic tension between women.
Vivian, played by Canadian actress Helen Shaver, is a prim English professor from New York who went to Reno to arrange a divorce and relax her frayed nerves at a nearby dude ranch. She immediately attracts the attention of Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a dark-eyed lesbian who lives at the ranch and works as a cashier at
one of the casinos. Based on a novel by British Columbia’s Jane Rule, the plot is as stark as the Nevada desert. With bold strokes, it traces Cay’s slow and persistent seduction of Vivian, who is a decade older and considerably more repressed. As their budding romance becomes obvious, the ranch’s shrewish owner, Frances (Audra Lindley), who clings to Cay as a surrogate daughter, grows vindictively jealous. Caught under the weight of emotional conflicts, Vivian’s resistance begins to crumble.
Shaver gives a delicately crafted performance in a film that is full of awkward moments—not all of them intentional. The final love scene, in which Cay seduces Vivian, is one of the most candid portrayals of love between women in the history of mainstream cinema. Energy rather than nudity makes it graphic. Although the camera never strays below the waist, an intense, lingering passion is exchanged between mouths and breasts. The scene is unusually long, bathed in a soft morning light from the hotel window, and there is no music to relieve the tension—nothing but the sounds of gentle lovemaking and faint traffic noise from the street below.
A daring film in many respects, Desert Hearts contains many rough edges. Attempting a radical variation on a classic theme, it is a coming-of-age romance in which the older, more sophisticated partner loses her innocence to a young renegade. At the same time, the film reveals the growing pains of
the film-makers as well. In her first major screen role, Charbonneau is a sultry and magnetic presence, but the stiffness of her acting often strains credibility. The film is also director Deitch’s first feature, and it betrays obvious signs of inexperience and budgetary restraint. In fact, it is so uneven that at one point a torrential downpour erupts from a cloudless sky at dawn. At least the dramatically blunt editing accentuates rather than attempts to conceal the lack of
Still, the movie’s
flaws, like its best qualities, are consistent with its themes—that danger of raw honesty is preferable to the safety of glossing over the truth. With its central casino metaphor, Desert Hearts is about gambling with love. And the film-makers have taken their own share of
risks, both artistic and financial:
Deitch sold her house to complete the financing. Although the payoff may fall short of the desired goal, her first feature offers palpable evidence that the gamble was well worth the risk.
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