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Desert Hearts

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 14, 2017
Desert Hearts

Todd Haynes' "Carole" wasn't the first film to adapt a novel about love between an older and younger woman into a smart, stylish screen version. Donna Deitch accomplished the trick in 1985, turning Jane Rule's 1964 novel "Desert of the Heart" into a groundbreaking drama that presented what Deitch calls an "authentic" lesbian romance. What she means by this is that the story ends with hope for the couple, rather than with suicide and heterosexual marriage.

The story unfolds in 1959 on a ranch outside of Reno, Nevada, where Vivian (Helen Shaver), a professor at Colombia University, has come to stay for six weeks in order to get a divorce. Her marriage, to a fellow scholar, isn't unhappy; it's just unsatisfying. When Vivian meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), the 20-something adopted daughter of ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley), she begins to grasp what it is she's yearning for. At the same time, Vivian makes friends with Frances' handsome son, Walter (Alex McArthur). Eventually, the jealous Frances grows so anxious and upset that she ejects Vivian from the property, but not before -- as the freewheeling Cay puts it -- Vivian has garlanded Cay's heart with "a string of lights."

Not that Vivian is the instigator. Cay makes no secret about her sexuality and entertains a parade of female guests in her private home on the ranch. (Walter, perhaps a little envious, declares himself amazed at the "traffic" that Cay attracts into her bedroom despite not having male "equipment" -- a remark that's both tellingly clueless and, in its backhanded way, supportive.) While many people in Cay's life are unfazed by her romantic attraction to other women -- such as best friend Silver (Andra Akers) and even, in his own clumsy way, boss and former lover Darrell (Dean Butler) -- Cay isn't feeling optimistic about her chances of meeting "someone who counts." What Vivian enters the picture, Cay pursues her with gentle determination, persisting despite Vivan's misgivings.

This Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition presents the film in a crisp and crystal-clear 4K transfer. There's a slate of extras: Deitch comments on the film in an audio track from 2007 (you have to select "audio" when you want to hear her comments, rather than the track being available as a continuous setting), and Deitch appears in conversation with openly lesbian "Glee" actor Jane Lynch, who describes the impact the film had on her as a young woman.

Ditch appears in another new interview segment, chatting with production designer Jeannine Oppewall and cinematographer Robert Elswit. Though Deitch had made several documentaries, "Desert Hearts" marked her feature film debut; the other two were similarly inexperienced; all three look back on the intoxicating and terrifying adventure of plunging into the project with fondness and nostalgia.

Shave and Charbonneau show up in a new segment of their own; interviewed separately, they both talk about the ease with which they tackled the teen-controversial material, concerned not with sexual politics but rather with the depth and emotional complexity of the story and characters. Novelist Jane Rule also appears, discussing the novel and her response to Deitch's request to make the book into a movie. (Essentially, Rule wasn't sure how well the book could be turned into a film, but told Ditch to go ahead and use whatever she wanted from the source material to realize her cinematic vision.)

Two short excerpts from a documentary about Jane Rule are also included, looking briefly at the issues around the novel's initial publication and the responses it generated -- some of which were unkind, to say the least, not to mention infuriatingly arrogant in their supposition of heteronormativity and their condescending pathologization of the LGBT community.

There's also a liner notes essay by film scholar B. Ruby Rich who, meditating on our fragile newfound freedoms, marvels at a strain of romanticism in the LGBT community for "the bad old days" -- "Call it a nostalgia for repression," she writes, before going on to examine the film, the context of the time in which it was made, and lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's "test" for female-centric movies. ("[A] work of fiction must feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, and the women must have names" -- surely not too much to ask for? And yet, there was a time when female representation in film routinely fell far short. Even today, despite "Bridesmaids" and "Bad Moms," films that posit female rebels against a backdrop of traditional roles, there is vast room for improvement on these scores.) It's a sad truth that these days even enjoying a celebrated film on a new Blu-ray release feels like an act of political empowerment.

The film itself is the main event, however -- powerful, assured, and as liberating as the landscape in which it was shot.

"Desert Hearts"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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