Desert Hearts (1985)

Directed by Donna Deitch; Written by Natalie Cooper

Outlaw love. 

A blonde curly-haired woman sits in a smoky Reno casino playing two slot machines simultaneously, her eyes darting back and forth as the dual cranks ring out. The incessant pulling and double-fisted gambling feels excessive, almost indignant in this male-dominated space of cowboy boots and shirts. Yet, she pays no mind.

Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), Columbia University professor, obviously out of her element in this honky tonk house of sin, watches from nearby with bemusement and some awe. They make eye contact, and the gambler says: “If you don’t play, you can’t win.”

It’s 1952, and Vivian’s in Nevada to establish residency for her divorce. She takes up a room at a ranch and arrives in the heat a skittish alien with a shadow for a voice, her circular sunglasses and east coast socialite outfit that of an outsider on uncertain terrain, with her half hat pinned to her head as if to keep her from trembling into pieces. For this time period, becoming a 35-year old divorcee was about the biggest social mulligan you could possibly call.

Deitch’s Desert Hearts draws on Nevada’s unkempt desert and its lawless past to depict a contemporary kind of outlaw. Kay, played with insatiable lust for life by Patricia Charbonneau, lives down the road from the ranch in what she calls her “hideout”. She’s introduced reversing full-speed down a highway while keeping up conversation car-to-car; she wears all-white silk cowboy outfits to parties. Women frequent her cottage (“How you get all that with no equipment is beyond me,” a ranchhand says). She’s unashamed of who she is and what she wants. Warm as the sand, indomitable like the cliffs. 

Vivian’s what Kay’s been looking for, and Kay’s what Vivian never thought was possible. If Vivian’s was anxious about the consequences of divorcing, the life of Kay is on an entirely other level. 

A radical film about then-radical love, Desert Hearts is a desert monsoon of a film and an unapologetic piece of storytelling whose audacity would have to wait close to 35 years to find a peer in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a slow burner that takes its time unveiling an emotionally rich sisterhood of women and their socially independent attitudes before erupting into a romance that’ll bow to no man or myopic attitude. 

Not to say it starts out barren. There’s enough electricity in learning looks and charged proximity to draw you in before the affair’s volcanic release and when it comes, what follows is somehow the most erotic and tender filmmaking I’ve seen in a long while, and Deitch’s treatment of Kay and Vivian’s physicality is unadulterated and as hungry for its couple as they are for each other.

Natalie Cooper’s treatment of Jane Rule’s source novel is filled with conversations on regrets, staying true to yourself, and the fears of stepping outside what’s expected of you by not only strangers, but also those closest to you. Allowing a new version of yourself not only comes with giddy excitement, but also deep-reaching introspection. Deitch and Cooper master the mix of both. It’s a film where the heady highs of passion rests on the groundswell forces of deeply existential pursuits

All of this is set against the majesty of the Nevada desert. Its nightime’s melancholy mood, as well as its formidable daytime presence is a perfect setting for a film about coming out to yourself, as this unforgiving place looks to break any pretenders. Adding a final dash of visual splendour is a barnburner of a wardrobe supplied to the cast by costumier Linda Bass, to whom I tip my hat. 

Society’s tolerance and empathy for characters like Kay and Vivan could fit in a very small place back in the 50s. The power of Desert Hearts lies in its characters who would let society burn to the ground before it let them force them into being something they’re not. 

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