Combustible Celluloid
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With: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Gwen Welles, Dean Butler, James Staley, Katie La Bourdette, Alex McArthur, Tyler Tyhurst, Denise Crosby, Antony Ponzini, Brenda Beck
Written by: Jane Rule, Natalie Cooper
Directed by: Donna Deitch
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92
Date: 03/07/1986

Desert Hearts (1985)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Blame It On Reno

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts was a rare thing in 1985 and, sadly, still a rare thing in 2017; it's a grown-up drama about two flawed, intelligent women who fall in love, and maybe get to be happy in the end. One could argue that this facet alone makes it a great or important film, but it's also a tender, emotionally honest, and lovely little movie. Weirdly, it's set even farther back in time, in 1959, in Reno, Nevada.

There, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) a professor steps off the train to obtain a quickie divorce. There's a whole system in place for this; she stays at a ranch, run by Frances (Audra Lindley), and occasionally visits a lawyer's office in town to fill out forms. Also staying on the ranch is the free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), who we first meet driving backward down the highway. Cay actually lives on the ranch full-time, mainly because she's the daughter of Frances' deceased beau, and Frances considers her family.

Cay and Vivian begin a friendship -- mirrored by a straight relationship between a friend of Cay's and a man -- that slowly turns romantic. Director Deitch and cinematographer Robert Elswit (Good Night, and Good Luck, There Will Be Blood) provide a perfect backdrop for the growing romance, with wide-open spaces juxtaposed with smoky casinos echoing the emotional ups and downs. Weirdly, the roadblocks to their happiness amount mainly to Frances' disapproval and Vivian's hesitation. Otherwise, this world of 1959 seems like a fantasy, where a couple can simply stay in a hotel room and just be happy together.

It's refreshing, and the Criterion Collection's 2017 Blu-ray (which I am a little late in reviewing) captures a beautiful transfer of a 35mm negative, full of healthy-looking grain and gorgeous natural lighting. (Elswit supervised the transfer.) Bonuses include a commentary track from 2007 by director Donna Deitch, a new conversation between Deitch and actor Jane Lynch (who was deeply inspired by the film), new interviews with actors Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, interviews with Deitch, Elswit, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall about shooting in Reno, and a documentary about the author of the novel, Jane Rule. My colleague, the legendary San Francisco film critic B. Ruby Rich, who first covered the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1980s, provides the liner notes essay.

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