Desert Heart - 1985
Director(s): Donna Deitch
Writer(s): Natalie Cooper (screenplay) / Jane Rule (novel)
Cinematography by: Robert Elswit
Editor(s): Robert Estrin
Cast: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Gwen Welles and Dean Butler
I have a lot of blind spots when it comes to movies, it could be that I wasn't exposed to the genre or style growing up, or it didn't draw my attention at the time- but recently, knowing my blind spots, I have been exploring genres, styles, directors, and actors that I overlooked. One genre that I have recently started to explore, thanks to recent films like Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name, is the "New Queer Cinema" (a term first coined by B. Ruby Rich). Seeing, and vicariously experiencing a life or lifestyle far removed from my own has always been one of the main reasons I love movies - and with Pride month going around me there is no better time to explore a few titles on the Criterion Channel, starting with Donna Deitch Indie classic, Desert Hearts.
The story takes place in 1959 and follows Vivian (Shaver), a 35-year-old English professor at Columbia University. Vivian goes to Reno to get a divorce but must stay there for six weeks to establish residency (since Reno was the divorce capital of the 1950s and the only option many women had during that era). She stays at a ranch for women, run by Frances (Charbonneau), and there she meets Cay (Lindley). Cay is a young free spirit working as a change operator at a local casino. Cay instantly falls in love with Vivian and starts to court her, despite Vivian's apprehension at first (her proper upbringing, and the constant worry of what others might think to hold her back).
The first thing I noticed about this film was how earnest and sincere it felt, and how that immediately drew me into this period piece that felt timeless as it doesn't veer far from the relationship of the two women. Sure, it does touch upon divorce laws, and societal standards of the era, but this relationship could easily be occurring in the present day. Cooper's screenplay (re-write of Deitch's draft) focuses on the attraction, passion, and love of the women in a way that you are invested, and rooting for its success, making the ending satisfying since you can fill in the blanks as you so desire. There are a few one-liners that feel out of place, but for the most part, the dialogue is subtle and layered, as it commentates on the aspect of coming out and surviving in the world by being your true self.
Deitch shot the film in a very straightforward way, no flash or style to detract from the relationship, akin to romantic movies of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. Where she shines is during the climactic sex scene, as she shot it in a raw, and intimate as their love, and their reactions (main Vivian's) carry the scene and doesn't come across as trying to be "hot" or voyeuristic - it plays out like a natural culmination to their courtship. You can tell this was filmed not only by a woman but a woman from the LGBTQ community - as it is more about delivering a genuine love scene that depicts intimacy over eroticism. While the story itself is simple, it is elevated thanks to Shaver and Charbonneau's chemistry and nuanced performances. You can see the love between them bubbling up as each scene progresses, and Charbonneau's smile every time she spoke with Shaver was infectious - I entirely bought into their relationship.
Desert Heart is a breath of fresh air, as it depicts a same sex relationship that doesn’t end in tragedy or is drowned by the intolerant point of view from the outside world as many films in the genre do. It focuses on the relationship, showcasing a coming out story powered by love and acceptance – selling you on their chemistry and demonstrating that same sex relationships can have a whirlwind love story, just like hetero couples get in the movies. The straightforward romantic story is elevated by the leads’ chemistry, and the thoughtful eye of Deitch behind the camera frames them in a way that you cannot help to fall in love with them as well.
Desert Heart is a Glass Half Full.
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