Synopsis: A blockbuster debut feature from director Donna Deitch (Criminal Passion), this “refreshingly lively and poignant” (The Hollywood Reporter) drama, written for the screen by Natalie Cooper, is based on Jane Rule’s cult classic novel Desert of the Heart – a soulful portrayal of relationships between women. With standout performances from Helen Shaver (The Color Of Money) and Patricia Charbonneau (Kiss The Sky), this compelling film is “luminous, tender and memorable” (Update).
Leaving behind a loveless 12-year marriage, stressed-out and fed-up university professor Vivian Bell (Shaver) travels to Reno, Nevada, in search of new adventures. And when wild-card casino cash-girl Cay Rivvers (Charbonneau) takes a shine to her…it changes her life. But as Vivian succumbs to Cay’s spell of carefree living, she wonders whether a mismatched pair of hearts could ever become two of a kind in a high-stakes game of love.
Desert Hearts 8.0
eyelights: the storytelling. the performances. the sexy bits.
eyesores: the awkward transitions between scenes.
“She reached in and put a string of lights around my heart.”
In recent years, as I explored gender politics on the silver screen, I kept hearing about ‘Desert Hearts’, the 1985 motion picture based on ‘Desert of the Heart’, by Jane Rule. A landmark in lesbian cinema, it is widely regarded as the first motion picture to not show a doomed lesbian romance. And for being drop-dead sexy.
Naturally, I was intrigued.
Set in Reno, in 1959, it tells of the developing romance between Professor Vivian Bell and a young sculptor named Cay Rivers while Bell sojourns at a desert farmhouse in preparation for a divorce from her long-term partner. It’s a story of passion and discovery, as Vivian taps into a side of herself that she wasn’t aware of.
Frankly, I was quite impressed with it. I expected very little, and was only watching it because I felt that my understanding of queer cinema wouldn’t be complete without it, but it’s really well-told and well-acted. I found the characters believable and I found their arcs developed absolutely correctly.
We are first introduced to Vivian as she arrives into town by train. Frances, the gritty rancher with whom she’ll be staying, picks her up. Being a city girl, Vivian feels out of place in the desert, with all the open space and heat. But she tries her best to make herself at home on the ranch for those six weeks.
Cay is Frances’ stepdaughter from a previous relationship, and she lives in a separate cottage on the property. Although she’s an artist, she works at the casino by day. Her best friend, Silver, also works there. They have a very close relationship: Silver professes her love for Cay and they are very intimate physically.
But Silver is engaged to be married to Buck, whom she loves. It’s unclear if Silver is bisexual, but he doesn’t seem to mind her closeness to Cay one bit. I was initially quite surprised by how accepting both Buck and Darrell (Cay’s boss and suitor) were of this friendship, given the time and place; I found them quite progressive.
I was also impressed by how receptive everyone was to the growing connection between Cay and Vivian. So I just assumed that everyone knew that Cay was a lesbian; it seemed so obvious anyway. But I seemed to have misjudged it: when people started to talk, Frances was upset and booted Vivian off the property.
Um… did I miss something?
In any event, I really liked how Vivian and Cay handled it. Cay is very courageous, and decided long ago that she won’t let the world change her – hence why she’s discreet but open about her sexuality. Vivian, however, is only just growing into it, so she wants to stay indoors and enjoy their passionate embraces.
I found the risqué bits very tasteful and absolutely lovely. And sexy. My favourite is when Cay first kisses Vivian, through the car window, in the rain; it was short, but romantic and sensual. The lengthier one was more titillating, but I loved how they balanced Vivian’s nervousness and longing; it was so believable.
Even the wrap-up was pitch-perfect: Vivian asks Cay to come back to New York with her. The young artist is uncertain about leaving everything behind, but Vivian coaxes her to at least ride the train until the next stop. The picture ends on an ambiguous note, which is terrific because it doesn’t ruin the fantasy.
If I have any complaints at all, it’s that the transitions between many scenes were awkward: the fade outs just didn’t work and the left-to-right wipes felt strange (it made me think of ‘Star Wars‘ too much). Thankfully, later in the picture there were some more clever transitions which I felt nearly made up for this.
Ultimately, though, I’d certainly recommend ‘Desert Hearts’. It’s an engaging love story, it’s sexy, it flows nicely and it’s performed to perfection. I completely understand why this is considered an important picture and why it still retains its potency even 30 years later: it’s a timeless tale that’s simple well-told.
It’s a must-see.
Date of viewing: February 14, 2016