Saturday, July 10, 2021

Desert Hearts

Movie Name:
Desert Hearts
Year of Release: 1985
Director: Donna Deitch
Starring: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Gwen Welles, Dean Butler, Alex McArthur, James Staley, Katie LaBourdette, Jeffrey Tambor
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Donna Deitch had a lengthy ordeal in order to secure funding and be able to bring this story to the big screen. After directing a few  documentaries in the 70s, it took her nearly 6 years to gather all the resources to make her narrative feature directorial debut. The film is an adaptation of the book by Jane Rule named "Desert of the Heart", and follows the story of Vivian Bell. The narrative takes place in 1959, and it follows Vivian's life, as she comes to establish residency in Nevada for a few weeks, while she's getting a swift divorce. Since she needs to stay in the area during the proceedings, she rents a room with Frances Parker, whose ranch has become a safe harbor for women going through the process of getting a divorce. Also living on the ranch is Cay, a young sculptor, who works at the local Casino, and was also brought up by Frances, who is in reality the former mistress of Cay's father. As Cay takes an interest in Vivian, the relationship between the two women grows increasingly closer, something that comes as a surprise for Vivian, who has always lived and experienced amorous relationships in a somewhat controlled manner. Cay's passion and spirit force Vivian to re-equate her choices and what she wants out of life.
"Desert Hearts" jumpstarted Donna Deitch's career, who has since then become quite prolific, tackling all sorts of independent films, intertwined with a variety of TV shows (including "Private Practice" and "NYPD Blue", to name but a few). The film itself has also become somewhat of a landmark in the depiction of an open lesbian relationship (unlike for instance, the more closeted "The Children's Hour" from director William Wyler, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine). The director manages to capture Vivian's journey somewhat succinctly, though with some substantial gaps. She never truly expands on what is prompting Vivian's divorce, or for that matter, what exactly draws her to Cay (save for the fact that Cay is somewhat the antonym of herself, since she is free spirited, and unafraid of living her life on her own terms). Cay for the most part is also something of an enigma - she is in a relationship with the casino manager, but is also having several amorous adventures with various women in town. Not much is ever deciphered in terms of who she is as a character or her actual motivations. Frances, who is Cay's adoptive mother in a way, has a more colorful backdrop, and her despair and fear of being left alone, is genuinely conveyed and eventually clashes with the newfound relationship between these two women. It's a film that nonetheless, is well observed, allowing for the relationships between these characters to have some dimension, and as the awakening of Vivian occurs, so does the sense of vibrancy and urgency she has, in order to discover her life. The cast is uniformly great, with Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau bringing the central duo of characters effectively to life, with great support from Audra Lindley. The cinematography from the great Robert Elswit is beautiful, as is the production design from Jeannine Oppewall. While somewhat succinct in its approach, it's nonetheless a solid film, always worth revisiting.