Home Video Hovel: Desert Hearts, by David Bax
So naturalistic and immediate is Donna Deitch’s minor marvel of a film, Desert Hearts, that if it didn’t have a title card right up front that reads “Reno, Nevada 1959,” you might be forgiven for not realizing right away that it’s a period piece. This is despite the era-specific clothing, the schooner-sized automobiles and even the antiquated particulars of the plot itself. The movie is so immersive and emotionally honest, even charming affectations like the old-fashioned wipe transitions don’t feel out of place.
Vivian (Helen Shaver) is an English professor from New York who has come to Reno in order to obtain what’s often misleadingly referred to as a “quickie” divorce. The process actually takes weeks and requires that a woman in her position stay in Reno for an extended time. Frances (Audra Lindley) owns a ranch where she provides her guests that opportunity. And so Frances’ home is filled with women awaiting divorces. Vivian, though, is the only one of them to catch the eye of Frances’ adult daughter, Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a woman who is, especially for 1959, astonishingly frank about her romantic and sexual interest in other women.
Desert Hearts (adapted by Natalie Cooper from the novel by Jane Rule) succeeds as a love story by letting the courtship unfold at a natural, sometimes achingly drawn out pace. In this way, it’s not unlike Luca Guagagnino’s Call Me by Your Name. It feels a bit reductive at first to make a comparison between one gay romance and another but the similarities are there in both plot (younger person falls for slightly older person who is a longterm houseguest of a parent) and in the sensuous, sensual and patient ways that it unfolds. Deitch excels at touches both small and large. When Vivian stops to notice Cay riding a horse outside her bedroom window and then tries, too late, not to be noticed back by hiding behind the curtain, the moment is both sweet and relatably funny. Later, Deitch expertly takes on a rom-com cliche, the montage of a woman trying on new outfits for another woman, but with the twist that the two friends are also the film’s central couple.
In both the early flirtations and the later, more erotic scenes, the takeaway from Desert Hearts is its enveloping tactility (well preserved by this Criterion Blu-ray release). It’s there in the clothing; Cay’s satin, silver cowboy jumpsuit, evoking strength in its tailoring yet softness in its shiny fabric, is a thing of beauty. It’s there in the desert air, dry and floral. It’s there in the casino, where you can practically smell the cigarette smoke clinging to the carpet. It’s a movie you can reach out and touch. It will likely reach out and touch you too.
The original camera negative was scanned at 4K and then a 2K restoration was done in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The soundtrack was remastered from 35MM split track mags. The quality and light of the film and Robert Elswit’s superb cinematography is impeccably preserved. Though that seems like an easy task given the relative recency of the film, some of these early American independents are less well-preserved than others. It’s good to know this negative was apparently in good shape and that any dirt removal, etc. that was done was done expertly. The mono audio sounds great, especially with those awesome Patsy Cline songs on the soundtrack!
Special features include a 2007 audio commentary from Deitch, a new conversation between Deitch and Jane Lynch, new interviews with Shaver and Charbonneau, a new featurette about Reno and an excerpt from a documentary about Rule.