It’s the late 1950s, and when Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English professor from Columbia University, arrives in Reno to end her marriage, she must stay at least six weeks to establish residency and get the Nevada divorce.
Forty-two days; the magic number. In the course of these 42 days, which she spends on a boarding ranch outside town, Vivian – cool, blond, vaguely skeletal – will learn a lot about herself and the world around her.
It is the backbone of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts that this enlightenment wili include an affair with Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a casino worker, who is the adopted daughter of the ranch owner (Audra Lindley). Cay is an admitted lesbian; she’s at peace with that part of her life, it’s the rest that she sometimes has trouble with. Vivian, on the other hand, seems frozen by her decision to leave her marriage, and she cringes initially at Cay’s interest.
The study in contrasts between the two women is pretty obvious, and frankly stays that way throughout the film. It’s dictated early on, just through casting and costuming: Vivian’s trapped in her padded-shoulder gray suits, Cay’s a dark-haired rambler in shorts and cowboy boots. But director Deitch and her actresses have found some healthy means of fleshing out this simple love story. Most obviously, there’s a shrewd use of humor; Deitch and scriptwriter Natalie Cooper (who adapted a novel by Jane Rule) keeps things lively and offbeat. The laughs are not mean-spirited, but good-natured.
It would have been easy for the film to be a flag-waving anthem (and it may still be perceived that way, as evidenced by the reaction to the film last week at the Seattle International Film Festival). But it’s more complex than that; none of the characters is idealized out of existence, and there are no white hats and black hats distributed along gender lines.
Deitch treats all her characters with generosity. And she’s paid a lot of attention to texture. The details have an authentic feel: the Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash songs, the walks through sagebrush, the steaminess of the hotel room in which Vivian and Cay finally consummate things during a hot Nevda afternoon. The latter is a provocative scene, naturally enough. On the whole, however, Desert Hearts is much more conventional than it might sound. The love story itself may be unconventional, but the narrative style is quite traditional. Far from being some kind of ideological compromise, this turns out to be one of the film’s strengths.
It doesn’t get the movie past the obviousness of the dynamics of the central relationship; this would have to be an even more daring film to do that. But it does provide a solid springboard for some good storytelling, of which Desert Hearts has quite bit.
First published in the Herald, 1986
This film has just recently been enjoying some re-appreciation as a pioneering work of lesbian subject matter, which it rightly deserves. Deitch has made a lot of TV since the film established her talent, but not many features. Charbonneau had a little moment where it seemed as though she might catch on (Michael Mann was especially interested, casting her in Manhunter and his TV opus Crime Story), but she never broke through to stardom, unfortunately. Shaver has acted a lot and also directed many TV shows.