desert hearts

1985

Directed by: Donna Deitch
Written by: Natalie Cooper

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 I feel an obligation to think about them in the context in which they were originally made and screened, because of course back then the production values would have seemed significantly higher, the fashions somewhat less dated, the mood somewhat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 the feeling.

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 everything changes.

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 time.

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.

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