Directed: Donna Deitch
Written: Natalie Cooper
I feel an obligation to think about Classics in the context in which they were originally made and screened, because of course back then the production values would have seemed significantly higher, the fashions somewhat less dated, the mood somewhat less hokey.
This was a film made in the eighties but set in the sixties in a small town outside Reno, so we have two different time frames to try and reconcile, plus the added bonus of a backwards hick atmosphere that both stifles the film and opens it up to a certain amount of ridicule all these years later.
Desert Hearts is a bonafide classic though. Donna Deitch somehow made this independent feature happen on a shoestring budget. Not just that, but she managed to pick up a Grand Jury prize at Sundance to boot. I know it is still some women's favourite lesbian film ever, maybe because they experienced the magic of sitting in a cinema and watching this slice of lesbian life unfold before their eyes. It must have been awesome. I didn't go through that with this film, my experience with that came with Go Fish almost nine years later. But I can imagine what they must have felt.
I rewatched Desert Hearts before writing this to make sure I remembered every nuance. What I remembered was that it was steamy, sensual, a bit clunky, but still a good movie. I admit I laughed a good deal more when I watched it this time around, and Vivian is still the least attractive lesbian character I've ever watched onscreen, but Cay... oh Cay. Even in a skintight silver satin bodysuit Patricia Charbonneau still manages to look sexy. And those jeans while she's riding the horse? And that shirt with no underwear? *swoon*. No matter the time period, I can always appreciate a good-looking, passionate woman when I see one on-screen.
That's what I love most about the character of Cay, her passion. She's twenty five years old. She's been holed up in this small, gossipy town her whole life, searching for "someone who counts", knowing that she's never going to find what she's looking for amongst the men of the town, and there's precious little chance she'll find it amongst the female population either. She's stagnating and knows it, until Vivian comes to town.
Vivian is ten years older, in town to get a quickie divorce from a husband who gives her nothing she really needs. She's smart, sophisticated, experienced (in all matters other than the romantic) and she's practically begging for someone to breathe some life back into her. Despite her protestations, that person is Cay and she knows it. Finally in a sweaty, horrible hotel room they get it together.
Of course, there are challenges. Cay's stepmother Frances, who intially befriends Vivian, throws her off the ranch when she gets a sniff of what's going on. She wants Cay's love all to herself and will never understand Cay's longing for women. Then there's Darryl, the man who Cay at first agreed to marry then cast aside when she could no longer deny her feelings for women.
Despite all the issues, Cay is singleminded in pursuit. She never dreams she might fail to win Vivian's love. She never stops to consider the consequences their love might have, for either of them. She goes after what she wants in a selfish, self-centred pursuit for her own happiness. Her seduction of Vivian is the highlight of the film. Vivian turns to find Cay has undressed and put herself in the bed. Initially Vivian is paralysed with fear. She wants Cay to get dressed and leave. "No, you don't" says Cay. She says it over and over. So sure. So seemingly confident, yet ready to break if she's turned away. This is a last, desperate attempt to force Vivian to see the truth.
What if Cay had been wrong? What if Vivian had been stronger, had been able to say no, rejected Cay's impressively bold seduction? I think about that every time I watch the scene, how interesting it is to see Vivian panic, to see her unable to gather her wits about her and turn Cay away, to punish her for her selfishness.
Vivian's life will never be the same after this moment, yet making a new life that includes this wondrous creature before her seems unthinkable. She gives in because she's incapable of anything else, because she's in love, and the tension dissolves in the steaminess of their love-making. It's a good ploy, it satisfies, it's sexy, and it works every time.
As we all know, once you give in it's all over. To try and claw your way back to reason will only cause you more pain. Vivian comes to understand this the hard way.
This is a film for hopeless romantics. You have to have a high capacity for schmaltz and an ability to listen to Patsy Cline wail "Crazy" with a straight face. Time has not been kind to Desert Hearts, but it will steal your heart if you let it.