Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts is the story of a woman
in her thirties that is facing a divorce.

Many people tend to buy the high end DVDs. Those discs that feature full 5.1 sound, many extras and whose films where blockbuster hits. If you stay with this method of buying DVDs you are going to miss a lot of worth while little independent films currently available on this format. Among the films in this category is the 1986 low budget film Desert Hearts.

Desert Hearts is the story of a woman in her thirties that is facing a divorce. In order to do this she moves to Reno where by law, she must establish residency. Vivian (Helen Shaver) is a professor from New York City where she lived a loveless and boring life. To achieve this end she books herself into a little ranch on the outskirts of Reno. The ranch is owned by an older woman Frances (Audra Lindley) with a straightforward style that the meek professor is not used to. Also living at the ranch is Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), apparently the stepdaughter of Frances who works in a near by casino. Cay is more attracted to women than to men and soon finds herself smitten by Vivian.

While the Desert Hearts story does contain an explicit love scene between Cay and Vivian the film is by no means exploitative. The scene is pivotal to the development of the characters. The basis of Desert Hearts is the developmental arc in the characters. Vivian at first is so properly dressed that she is completely out of place at the ranch. Slowly, as her attitudes change and grow her wardrobe seems to reflect it. Business like suits change to more causal attire. The screenplay by Natalie Cooper is dramatic, poignant and ultimately touching.

The acting in Desert Hearts is full of many subtle nuances. At times the parts are almost underplayed drawing the viewer into the world created in the plot. Shaver shows the most growth in her character. From a woman always doing the right thing, from the right marriage to a fellow professor, the right clothes and the right attitudes she transforms into a person questioning life and how she is to live the rest of hers. Although Shaver had been acting for about nine years prior to this movie, Desert Hearts in 1986 was just before her breakthrough form Canadian cinema to the USA. Most familiar from her plethora of television appearances, Ms Shaver has talent in abundance.

Recently she has started to direct in such venues as the new Outer Limits and has also had a hand in production. She is one of those overnight success stories that took two decades of hard work to achieve. Patricia Charbonneau is as talented as she is beautiful. Also best know for television work her career never seemed to have had the chance that it should have had.

In Desert Hearts she is not the stereotypical movie lesbian. She plays the role with sensitivity and style as a young woman that knows what she wants from life is not the norm but she is still determined to have it. Her portrayal is a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood characterture that would have ruined Desert Hearts. Yet another actress best know for her TV work is also present here.

Lindley, most recognized for her long role on the TV hit Three’s Company, shows that she has more talent than any sitcom can demonstrate. As her character’s jealousy becomes more overt Lindley does not fall into the common trap of overplaying the role. Instead she hands in a performance worthy of the highest acclaim. While the cast is from television they certainly show they can handle the big screen better than most.

The director Donna Deitch, is also from the realm of television. She has directed some of the most acclaimed shows around including ‘ER’, ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘the Women of Brewster Place’. As with the actresses in Desert Hearts, the director demonstrates just how good the talent employed by some television shows can be. The direction is nothing fancy. Just good solid lighting, excellent framing of each scene and an admirable sense of direction presented throughout Desert Hearts.

Deitch has a great eye for detail which helps transport the viewer to the fifties. Lesser directors would have succumbed to the temptation of playing up the lesbian scene. To do so would have degraded a tender drama into a piece of exploitation. There is an excellent commentary by the direct that helps you understand the decisions that had to be made and how they were made.

The Desert Hearts DVD is not what many would call a full use of the technology. The sound is digital mono. I found it better to bypass the digital feed to my receiver and play the film in theater mode. The picture is non-anamorphic 1.85:1. While not spectacular it gets the job done. DVD does more than present leading edge technology. First and foremost it preserves films of merit. This is what is done here.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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