The summer of 2018 will always live in infamy for me as the summer where I bought way too many Criterion Collection blu-rays during one of the 50% off sales. Honestly, I’m swimming in Criterions, and I don’t know how I’m going to make it through them all. So here, in this column, I invite you to keep up with the Criterions with me. Come along, won’t you?
The world built by Donna Dietch in her 1986 film Desert Hearts is pretty unexpected. The film is set in 1959, and what the title tells us we should be in for is a steamy, sultry romance story with glances of men in tight jeans and cowboy hats working the fences at an old cattle ranch, and ladies watching them with sweat beading on heaving bosoms as they hold their hair off their necks and sip on bottles of Coke. It’s an imaginary representation of the sun-drenched Nevada desert, built on our lusty ideas of floral dresses, riding clothes, and no air conditioning. What we imagine borders on exploitation, but, in actuality, Dietch crafts a film which couldn’t be further from that. Sure, what eventually transpires could be considered steamy, but unlike exploitation, Desert Hearts isn’t so much about giving in to one’s desires as it is finding out what one’s desires might be.
Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) is a poised and respected literature professor from Columbia University, who thrives on a life of order. She does, however, have an inkling that something is holding back her emotional well-being, and determines her marriage (to another renowned professor) is the culprit. Vivian’s marriage is presented as stale and unfulfilling, as two people who respect each other, but their passion is long gone — if it even was there in the first place. We don’t get to see her husband’s point of view (not that it would make much of a difference anyway), but Vivian has decided to take the plunge and travel to Nevada to take up residency on a “divorce ranch” (it may seem like a strange custom to us now, but in the 1950s, a popular way for women seeking a quick divorce from their husbands was for them to move to Nevada — a state notorious for laws that made divorce almost as speedy as marriage — and establish residency in a hotel or on a ranch. It only took six weeks to become a legal resident of Nevada, after which the hotel owners would accompany the women in court to vouch for them, and voila! Divorce granted. Colloquially, this was known as “the Reno cure”). Of course, it’s here, in the hot Nevada desert, that Vivian discovers more about herself than she ever thought possible.
Living on the ranch is Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a fiery young woman who’s there as a guest of the ranch-owner, Frances (Audra Lindley). Cay has been invited to stay because she’s the daughter of Frances’ one great love: a now-deceased man who had lived with them there for a while, keeping Frances as his mistress for several years (that sounds somewhat pathetic as described here, but we get the idea they were happy in this arrangement). Cay’s introduction is just as fast and loose as she is: just as Frances is describing Nevada as “God’s backyard” to Vivian on the drive from the train station to the ranch, Cay passes them on the highway going the opposite direction, kicks her big black convertible into reverse to match their speed, and says hello. From that moment forward, it’s clear the two women, whose personalities seem so very juxtaposed, are about to be entwined in a relationship neither of them had anticipated.
It’s this journey to romantic involvement that makes Desert Hearts so unique; the film is not coy, it’s not full of too much protest, it’s not bogged down by hyperbolic sexual tension. Dietch’s genius here is in subtlety, in how we’re eased into this relationship, and although the notion of “will they or won’t they” is assuredly present in this picture, it’s less dramatic than we might come to expect. This isn’t a story told for shock value; no, it’s much more gentle than that. If we see Vivian as a character based in unlocked potential, then Cay is most certainly the key: in one scene Cay convinces Vivian to go horseback riding with her by telling her to “take off (her) reading glasses,” an indirect suggestion that she metaphorically let her hair down (and let herself get a little messy out on the range). The two women are attracted to each other because they both represent what’s new and unknown to each other: to Cay, Vivian is sophisticated and, in a way, whole. She has an elegance about her that Cay isn’t accustomed to seeing. And to Vivian, Cay is the exact opposite: she’s impulsive and carefree, a personification of the reasons why Vivian wants out of her marriage. To each of the women, the other is exotic, and one of the more enjoyable things about this film is how the two of them exchange smitten glances from time to time during the build-up.
At times, this film may seem a little indecisive in its portrayal of love, but that’s probably done on purpose. The needle keeps hopping back and forth between love and lust, and we wonder if Vivian and Cay’s relationship has staying power. Will their interest in each other eventually fizzle out? In the hotel room, Vivian mentions she’ll get her revenge on the town chastising her by writing a short story about them later, indicating that she may only regard this as a “phase” in her life. Does she want to put all of what’s happening out of her mind? She, an educated scholar, can hardly believe the events of the past few weeks herself. Of course, the scene that immediately follows is the one that metaphorically “seals the deal” between the two women, but still, we’re left with a little hesitation that they’re truly fated to be together. After all, they are very dissimilar in temperament; however, that kind of “ebb and flow” usually does a relationship good. It’s just that Vivian is very structured — a person of intellectual caliber — and giving in to desires even in the slightest way can be very conflicting to someone like her. But Dietch’s storytelling here is remarkable because she doesn’t run away from that conflict, and instead of solving it, presents a conclusion in which our heroine is still unsure of her own decisions. In the end, Vivian is emotionally shaky to some extent, but also shows a glint of contentment and hope, especially as she invites Cay to join her back in New York City. So, as faltering as it may seem at times, the film uses that uncertainty to its advantage, reminding us that taking risks is a part of the road to lasting love. As one of the gamblers in the casino where Cay is a waitress says, “You don’t play, you can’t win.”
In his 1986 review, Roger Ebert said Desert Hearts isn’t a philosophical exploration of lesbianism, but a story of two women’s attraction. Ebert’s words imply there isn’t much going on below the surface of this picture, which, in the culture of 1986, might have been somewhat true. But nowadays, as conversations focus so much on how we identify ourselves, the meaning behind the story Desert Hearts gives us turns out to be more significant. It’s not exactly “identity politics” in question here, but how one perceives oneself. When we speak of identity in 2018, there can be a stigma of flippancy attached to the conversation; it’s almost as if in some ways the notion of personal identity has become a parody of itself and therefore can’t be taken seriously. And while there are those individuals who may perceive their identities naively, we can’t discount the importance of looking deep inside ourselves, contemplating who we really are, and being honest about what we find. The point is, the theme in this film is not so much about labeling oneself as it is finding oneself. So, to say this film is “not a philosophical exploration” is to deny the film of that soul-search, and to deny us a discussion of what identity means to personal authenticity. Vivian obviously had never thought of being with another woman before, and although Cay may very well be the only woman she is ever with, we can’t overlook the emotional transformation Vivian experiences. It’s not simply a case of “okay, I’m a lesbian now;” that would be too rude. Through her relationship with Cay, Vivian finds a version of herself who’s pleased to let go of the restraint of social norms, who’s not too worried anymore about what her prestigious colleagues at Columbia may think of her, who’s, basically, willing to budge a little when it comes to her happiness (and discovers, even, what her own body is capable of in the process). Other criticisms of this film cite that it’s a story of seduction over discovery, but again, we’re not talking about this film in terms of exploitation. Desert Hearts can’t be anything but a journey of self-discovery, especially since both our main characters are unsure of what the future may hold for them. Cay isn’t exempt from this. She’s afraid of leaving Reno, because as ugly as it is for her there sometimes, she’s comfortable. So when Vivian asks her to hop on that departing train to ride with her at least until the next station, Cay hesitates. Because as certain as she is about finally finding “someone that counts,” in those few moments spent there on the train platform, the reality of leaving her home and everything she knows sets in. Above all else, Desert Hearts is about taking chances and relieving ourselves of our hang-ups — be they sexual, ideological, religious, or what-have-you. And that’s what, in effect, makes this story so perfectly timeless.
Desert Hearts’ ideal of love is what makes it quaint: one of the best lines is given by Frances describing how she felt about Cay’s father. “He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart,” she says, which will later be repeated as Cay tries to convince Frances of her love for Vivian. It’s a simple and lovely little line that is reminiscent of country songs of yore, which, by the way, fill this film’s soundtrack to the brim of its ten-gallon hat. Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Roy Orbison (among others) perfectly compliment the lovelorn feel of this film; there’s a poetry to old country music that operates without gimmick or pretense, which is exactly how this film functions. The only thing that may be missing is more shots highlighting the beauty and solitude of the Nevada desert, but Dietch is rightly focused on showing us the ways in which people come together, not the loneliness we experience when we’re apart. As for performances, Helen Shaver is quite lovely as the reserved Vivian; she plays the role with a kind of subtle bewilderment and frustration which lends her character utmost credibility. And Patricia Charbonneau is rousing as the self-assured and flirtatious Cay (if we don’t want to be with her, we might just want to be her).
So, again, this film is not the “hot and heavy” desert romance one might expect. It’s not exploitation, it’s not “Skinemax;” it’s an entirely realistic portrayal of two women bringing out the best qualities in each other, and falling in love (though, it is a portrayal which does so happen to feature one very authentic sex scene, but there’s symbolism in that, too). Dietch shows us how timing is everything, and how where we are can influence who we are; further, we’re shown how noting the importance of self-discovery leads to higher self-value, and how freeing ourselves from the restraint of normative thought helps us gain a better understanding of the world around us. All of these things make Desert Hearts as unique as it is wonderful, and a story definitely worth telling.