Desert Hearts September 11, 2018
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
n 1985’s Desert Hearts, Helen Shaver plays Vivian, a buttoned-up, 35-year-old academic on the verge. On the verge because life as she’s come to know it has become a distant memory; on the verge because she is, to her dismay, en route to becoming a divorcée. It’s 1959, the last year in a decade in which she’s only known what it’s like to be married. The setting is Reno, Nevada, where she will stay for a total of six weeks — the amount of time necessary to be considered a citizen and therefore be eligible to obtain a quick, painless divorce.
Vivian will be staying at a ranch run by a possessive, straw-haired alcoholic named Frances (Audra Lindley), which is tailored specifically to women in the former's same predicament. Socializing, though, isn’t on Vivian’s mind. Soft-spoken and reticent, she’d initially rather keep herself company. Likely because she doesn’t want to be there in the first place; likely because the thought of allowing more people into her life, knowing full well at the outset that keeping in touch will be difficult in the long run, is unappealing.
But Vivian cannot help but get involved in the lives of these comparatively lonely people. She is especially drawn to Frances’ quasi-adopted daughter Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a raven-haired free-spirit and lesbian whose paucity of inhibition subtly attracts the long-restrained her. Over the course of Desert Hearts, an unanticipated romance will blossom, leading Vivian, who for years has leaned into an idea that her fate is preordained, to a crisis of identity.
Desert Hearts is a movie of considerable power — a romantic feature where love is unusually transformative. The film, written by Natalie Cooper and directed by Donna Deitch, is an adaptation of 1964’s Desert of the Heart, the debut novel of Jane Rule. Unread by me, the book has come to be something of a landmark in lesbian literature — not unlike the way Desert Hearts, which received variegated reviews upon release, has become a staple in LGBTQIA+ cinema.
The film is tender-hearted and moving — stirring, in part, because it is so positive in its portrayal of a relationship that, to the more-timid Vivian, is more than a brief affaire du cœur. It also marks the beginning of a total reconsideration of oneself. That momentousness is felt.
The performances from Shaver and Charbonneau are uncommonly lyrical. As Shaver promenades in compact, expensive habiliments and speaks only in carefully thought-out sentences, we see a woman ensnared. She has for so long tended to a persona — a figment of who she thinks she is supposed to be — that she has rarely thought it necessary to look inward. In Desert Hearts, she is given the opportunity to reevaluate.
The primary catalyst for this, of course, comes in the form of Charbonneau, who embodies Cay’s lack of heed with assurance. Vivian and Cay’s relationship is so affecting, I think, because both bear traits so complementary to the other: Cay’s dearth of self-consciousness is compatible with Vivian’s habitual restraint; Vivian’s taciturnity is unexpectedly congruent with Cay’s captivating intensity.
Shaver and Charbonneau get these characters just right. Their chemistry, so atomic, is valuable, too: When the film climaxes via a long-anticipated, silk-sheeted rendezvous, the scene rings with an emotional clarity rarely seen in even the most formidably choreographed of sex scenes. And finally, when the hopeful-but-not-conclusive finale arrives, we find ourselves genuinely invested in these women — and curious as to where their lives will take them next. B+