A film with a heartbeat that both aches and flutters, Desert Hearts is a quiet and contemplative love story that lets itself get lost in evening conversations and loaded silences. Directed by Donna Deitch and beautifully shot by Robert Elswitt – who would later become PTA’s DOP of choice and this, in fact, feels like it unfolds in the same periphery as Hard Eight, just forty years earlier – it lovingly captures a bleached and dusty 50s-era Reno Nevada without ever drawing attention to its period setting. The film, namely its environments and textiles, feel so lived in and worn that the 50’s setting actually passed me by for much of the runtime. It’s casual where many other films would be emphatic. You could perhaps tell this same story in the contemporary 80s without changing much, but the stifled, suffocated 50s attitudes add an extra dimension to all those open spaces and, stylistically, heighten the aesthetics – costumes, cars, music – to something more mythic.
The two lead actresses, Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, are incredible at conveying the pent up, stifled emotion that sizzles between their characters, Vivian and Cay. They share an electric sexual chemistry that fuses not just their complimentary physiques – one a statuesque blonde, the other a firey brunette – but also their personalities. It’s a queer love story which rises above “will they/won’t they” conventions into something for more engaging. As two fascinating women, you just want to see Vivian and Cay connect how they are clearly meant to, maybe to assemble a greater whole between them than what they can achieve separately.
The film’s centrepiece – an extended seduction in a hotel – is handled with such respectful tenderness and careful sensuality that I was struck at how much it felt like a moment of pure character development rather than a titillating sex scene. You share the moment with them, feeling the exposed vulnerability between the two of them as well as their emotional connection, less conscious of the fact you are seeing actors remove their clothes for a camera. It’s more European that way, but it’s also sexy and passionate. The perfect balance. One of the best seductions I’ve ever seen, frankly and one which amplifies the entire film to a new level of understanding of its characters and themes.
Deitch also has a delicate eye for transitions and song use as well as a knack for filling out the supporting roles with equally gifted actors. Everyone registers onscreen and all of the technical and design elements sing in harmony with one another. Major props to Janus Films for blowing the dust off of this LGBT jewel.
Watched on Criterion blu-ray.