Culture / Life / Media

Desert Hearts: Still Sapphic Bliss

In the last installment of Queer-View Mirror, I shared my experience of watching my coming-out movie, Desert Hearts, in 15-minute increments, and simultaneously feeling the door to my own personal closet flying off its hinges. I was 16 years old then, and naturally, it became my favorite film. But recently I wondered, would I love it as much today, viewing it with my veteran lesbian bifocals?

So I watched it again. And I confirmed that there is a whole lot to love about Desert Hearts, not least of all the bravery of those responsible for making it in 1985, during a decade when nobody wanted to fund or star in gay flicks. There were few LGBT characters in mainstream film and they tended to be predatory (My Two Loves), homicidal  (Cruising), or predatory, homicidal vampires (The Hunger).  

Patricial Charbonneau 's Cay busts a move on Helen Shaver's Vivian in Desert Hearts. [PHOTO CREDIT: DONNA DEITCH]

Patricial Charbonneau’s Cay busts a move on Helen Shaver’s Vivian in Desert Hearts. [PHOTO CREDIT: DONNA DEITCH]

Desert Hearts was refreshingly different, not only because the characters weren’t psychotic, but also because it didn’t end in depressing, unrequited love (Personal Best) or death (all the other queer films). Today, nearly 30 years later, the film holds up as a bold, beautifully rendered story about the search for authenticity and love, and the sacrifices one has to make to find them.

Directed by Donna Deitch, the film, which won the 1986 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, stars Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell, a 35-year-old seriously uptight professor who comes to Reno for a quickie divorce and in search of “an honest life.” Up until now, her life has been about “order,” and now, as she confesses to the lawyer handling her divorce, she “yearn(s) for something you can’t analyze or reason away.” She is shocked to discover that what she’s yearning for is Cay Rivvers, a hot, free-spirited, 25-year-old lesbian casino worker played by Patricia Charbonneau (her film debut). They meet on the ranch where Cay lives with her stepmother, Frances, played deftly by Audra Lindley (or as we children of the ‘70s know her, Mrs. Roper), who rents rooms to women who are in the process of getting unhitched.

The chemistry between Shaver and Charbonneau builds slowly, but steadily from the moment the two meet and give each other That Look. The dialogue is sparing, to say the least, but includes some of the best-ever lines, including this exchange from the love scene in Vivian’s hotel room:

Vivian: I wouldn’t know what to do.

Cay: You can start by putting the “do not disturb” sign on the door.

Vivian (returning): Well, that part went smoothly.

Cay: So take your hands out of your pockets and come here.

Vivian (sitting down on the bed): I’m not taking off my robe.

Cay: Well, everybody has to draw the line somewhere.

Deitch isn’t afraid of silence, as so many directors seem to be, rushing to fill every shot with snappy dialogue or blaring music or some sort of sound effect. She doesn’t rely on quick cuts to give the film its sense of urgency or purpose. At times, that can make it feel slow-moving, but the pace is what ultimately makes the love scene between the women so compelling and so believable. You have to wait for it and there’s not much to distract you from the buildup.

For a coming-out movie, it’s as good as it gets. The main character comes out to herself without the world blowing up, and neither turns out to be a creature from the underworld. Nobody has to die. And the ending is deliberately vague as to whether the women find a way to stay together, but you have the feeling they just might. For myself, as a terrified Orthodox Jewish 16-year-old just beginning to know myself, that was an ending I could live with.

Today’s teens might find Desert Hearts a bit old-fashioned, and not just because it’s set in 1959. They’re used to queer characters everywhere, out and proud, having plenty of sex. They likely don’t need a coming-out movie. Not that I’m waxing sentimental about the ’80s, when, for example, a U.S. appellate court was upholding the anti-sodomy laws in Texas and anti-gay rhetoric reached a new high with the devastating AIDS epidemic. But there was something about that shocking moment of discovery on the sofa in our family room, watching contraband material in a pre-Google world, gasping at the sight of my own image on the screen. I will never forget how that felt, finding myself, with such clarity, when I had been so completely hidden.

It seems like today, that moment would be more drawn out, the impact more muted. Or maybe not. Maybe, like Desert Hearts, it’s just a slow build to a satisfying ending.

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*