The classics are hard to review. I feel an obligation to think
about them in the context in which they were originally made and
screened, because of course back then the production values would
have seemed significantly higher, the fashions somewhat less dated,
the mood somewhat less hokey.
Of course, this was a film made in the eighties but set in the
sixties in a small town outside Reno, so we have two different
time frames to try and reconcile, plus the added bonus of a backwards
hick atmosphere that both stifles the film and opens it up to
a certain amount of ridicule all these years later.
Desert Hearts is a classic though.
Donna Deitch somehow made this independent feature happen for
significantly less than a million dollars, which even taking inflation
into account is still considered a small budget. Not just that,
but she managed to pick up a Grand Jury prize at Sundance to boot.
I know it is still today some women's favourite lesbian film ever,
probably because they would have experienced the magic of sitting
in a cinema and watching this slice of lesbian life unfold before
their eyes. It must have been awesome. I didn't go through that
with this film, my experience with that came with Go
Fish almost nine years later. But I can just imagine
I rewatched Desert Hearts on video before writing
this review just to make sure I remembered every nuance. What
I remembered about it was that it was steamy, sensual, a bit clunky
at times, but still a good movie. I must admit I laughed a good
deal more when I watched it this time around (and not always in
places where I was meant to), and Vivian is still the least attractive
lesbian character I've ever watched onscreen, but Cay... oh Cay.
Even in a skintight silver satin bodysuit Patricia Charbonneau
still manages to look sexy. And those jeans while she's riding
the horse? And that shirt with no underwear? *swoon*. No matter
the time period, I can always appreciate a good-looking, passionate
woman when I see one on-screen.
That's what I love most about the character of Cay, her passion.
She's twenty five years old. She's been holed up in this dirty,
small, gossipy town her whole life, searching for "someone
who counts", knowing that she's never going to find what
she's looking for amongst the men of the town, and there's precious
little chance she'll find it amongst the female population either.
She's stagnating and knows it, until Vivian comes to town and
Vivian is ten years older, in town to get a quickie divorce from
a husband who gives her nothing she really needs. She's smart,
sophisticated and experienced (in all matters other than the romantic)
and she's practically begging for someone with passion to breathe
some life into her lonely existence. Despite her protestations
and existential dilemmas, that person is Cay and she knows it.
Finally in a sweaty, horrible hotel room they get it together.
Of course, there are challenges. Cay's stepmother Frances, who
intially befriends Vivian, throws her off the ranch when she gets
a sniff of what's going on between Vivian and her stepdaughter.
She wants Cay's love all to herself and will never understand
Cay's love and longing for women. Then there's Darryl, the man
who Cay at first agreed to marry ("I allowed myself to get
attracted to his attraction for me") then cast aside when
she could no longer deny her feelings for women.
Despite all the issues, Cay is singleminded in her pursuit. She
never dreams that she might fail to win Vivian's love. She never
seems to stop and consider the consequences their love might have,
for either of them. She goes after what she wants in an almost
selfish, self-centred pursuit for her own happiness. Her seduction
of Vivian is the highlight of the film. Vivian turns to find Cay
has undressed and put herself in the bed. Initially Vivian is
paralysed with fear. She wants Cay to get dressed and leave. "No,
you don't" says Cay. She says it over and over. So sure.
So seemingly confident, yet ready to break if she's turned away.
This is a last, desperate attempt to force Vivian to see the truth.
What if Cay had been wrong? What if Vivian had been stronger,
had been able to say no, had gotten dressed herself, left the
room and rejected Cay's impressively bold seduction? I think about
that every time I watch that scene, how interesting it is to see
Vivian panic, to see her unable to gather her wits about her and
turn Cay away, to punish her for her selfishness. Recently there
was line in the The L Word
that describes this best - Vivian looks utterly dismantled. Her
old life will never be the same after this moment, yet making
a new life that includes this wondrous creature before her seems
unthinkable. Despite all her better judgment she gives in because
she's incapable of anything else, because she's in love, and the
tension dissolves in the steaminess of their love-making. It's
a good ploy, it satisfies, it's sexy, it's real and it works every
As we all know, once you give in it's all over. You may as well
give in completely, because to try and claw your way back to reason
will only cause you more pain. Vivian comes to understand this
as she tries to continue seeing Cay but is unable to face what
being with a woman will mean to her. Finally the film offers no
solutions, just that they'll continue to spend the time together
they have and worry about the future later. Will Vivian ever return
to see Cay? Will Cay pack up and move to New York to become Vivian's
lover? We will never know. All we know is that they spent those
last forty minutes together on the train as Vivian left town.
After that it is up to the universe to decide.
This is a film for hopeless romantics. You have to have a high
capacity for schmaltz and an ability to listen to Patsy Cline
wail "Crazy" with a straight face. Personally I find
that it's an experience of high class moments, but some annoying
low ones. Time has not been kind to Desert Hearts
and it is definitely fraying at the edges, but it will steal your
heart if you let it.
Got a comment? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org