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David De Simone
It is 1950s Nevada, and Professor Vivian Bell arrives to get a divorce. She's unsatisfied with her marriage, and feels out of place at the ranch she stays on, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Cay Rivers, an open and self-assured lesbian, and the ranchowner's daughter. The emotions released by their developing intimacy, and Vivian's insecurities about her feelings towards Cay, are played out against a backdrop of rocky landscapes and country and western songs.Written by
Neil Lewis <email@example.com>
Though the movie is set in 1959 the markings on the center line of the highway are yellow. Such lines were white until 1971 when the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices mandated a switch to yellow. See more »
"Desert Hearts" has quite a bit going for it. It captures 1950s Reno and environs, the biggest little city in the world, pretty well: great old cars, red earth, dried twisted windspent driftwood, fragrant summer sagebrush, the noisy 7/24 casinos with 99 cent meals, suntanned faces, rickety ranch motels on the outskirts of town, snow-veined Sierras, and the pop music that is no worse than what we listen to. The story pulls one in.
Aura Lindley is the matriarch of the ranch and has bonded with one of her tenants. A new one arrives, an Eastern sophisticate, who refers to herself as a "distinguished author," and has a lot of books schlepped into her room. Discord! Helen Shaver, the professor, is rather neat and in addition to her books carries around a lot of savoir-faire. She doesn't look bad either. The movie also has going for it the presence of Patricia Charbonneau, who must have one of the most interesting crania on the planet, and the soft parts to match. She is possessed of a sinewy yet feminine figure and carries herself with presence. Her hair and her irises are the color of glowing anthracite. ("Charbonneau", indeed.) And those dazzling big choppers, appalling and appealing. She outs herself on a walk with Shaver who responds momentarily, impulsively. Jealous, Lindley throws Shaver out, suspecting something more intimate has happened than actually has.
The intimacy follows in a later scene when Charbonneau tracks Shaver to her downtown hotel room and initiates a long, erotic love scene which isn't at all pornographic or exploitative. The two women love one another, but one is after all an uptight distinguished author and the other, though equally intelligent, goes with the flow, as they say, and has been "kicked out of college for unnatural acts."
The film ends ambiguously. Can they get together? Can they compromise their life styles? Can a distinguished author carry on an affair with another woman in the 1950s? Not including Gertrude Stein? Can our desert wildflower find a home as a potted plant surrounded by geraniums on a windowsill on MacDougall Street in the Village? Will an author find happiness with a woman after her marriage to a man has ended in boredom and disaster? Will -- I forgot what the original rhetorical question was.
This is an easy movie to get through. Nothing in it leaps out at you. It doesn't pound you over the head with its modern sensibilities. We're not invited to condemn those morons back in the 50s for their attitudes towards gays, nor are we urged to feel guilty because we are accused of some lingering distaste ourselves. The movie sort of shrugs at these issues and says, well, that's the way it was. Not exactly a time that embraced gays but, at least on the outskirts of Reno, not exactly a time of torture either. One wishes Shaver and Charbonneau well as they ride off on the train into the sunset.
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