Desert Hearts


imagesMarried for twelve years, heavy with divorce and recrimination, elegant English professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) finds herself, in order to hasten legal proceedings, as a stranger in Reno, Nevada, in the late fifties. Based on Canadian writer Jane Rule’s 1964 novella “Desert of The Heart”, Donna Deitch’s 1985 film is a testament to emotional honesty, possibly the first mainstream movie about “women together” and one that is far more than mere exploitation. An early casino scene, with rolling fruit machine symbols coming to rest, reminds us of the limited choices that life in Reno circa 1959 would allow. One would have to cross the state line in order to go beyond that, and that is exactly what free-spirited tomboy Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau) is doing as we meet her in her bohemian ranch on the outskirts of town, scattered objects d’art visible, evidence of the artist at work – and a loose tousle-haired woman glimpsed briefly in her bed – evidence of the artist at play. The graceful academic Beldownloadl finds herself drawn magnetically into Cay’s wild child orbit, testing her own innate notions of respectability and order in the process. Helen Shaver takes to this role in the manner of a young Deborah Kerr, with the icy veneer of restraint masking torrents of untapped warmth within. Many of the incidental male characters come across (as you might expect) as vain and predatory creatures, boorish, self-obsessed and impervious to the feelings of those around them. And Mrs Frances Parker (Audra Lindley) the owner of the hotel where women wait for their divorces to come through, is portrayed as a frequently drunken and emotionally-repressed stepmother, her outbursts of anger clearly a front for her dependence and her vulnerability (and her inability to understand Cay and love for its own sake, without limits). There is much to savour in Deitch’s work. The effective use of fade-out in certain scenes. A fine evocative period soundtrack featuring the likes of Gene Vincent, Patsy Cline and early Elvis Presley tracks – setting the stage for whispers of forbidden love, amongst the strict redneck attitudes of the late 50s. The minutiae of small-town life. Flawed notions of personal respectability and responsibility. The English professor, fetching in a stitched rodeo shirt, watching wild horses at play. A lakeside walk, purple mountains. The first kiss, when it comes (in the rain thru’ an open car window) is initially hesitant, lingering, and eventually strong and passionate (if curtailed by confusion and inbred download (1)familial concerns of “normal” behaviour). It is a film, simply, about attraction, the fear of the unknown, and of teaching the heart to explore without trepidation. And the sex between the two women, when it finally happens (in a hotel room accompanied by muted and mournful train whistles on distant lines) is naturalistic and believable – tender – human with all its frailties – trusting – and an overwhelming cathartic rush to the senses. In the face of all the repression, all the prejudice, the presumptive male dullards, the embittered stepmothers, all drowned out in a wellspring of emotion and released libido. It is a bravura piece of film-making. And some great dialogue: Vivian: “I wouldn’t know what to do”. Cay: “You can start by putting the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door”. And we have a favourable outcome before the final credits roll, a welcome rejection of the formulaic “star-crossed lesbian lovers dying in flaming automobiles, or a hail of silver bullets”, as “punishment” for their so-called “transgression”, we have – instead – hope for our two outlaw heroines in a new future, somewhere uncertain but possible . A film that resonates with a warm glow and a sense of giddy optimism, encapsulated by Cay Rivvers’ wide smile. ©The Male Gaze 2009

Desert Hearts [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

 

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