Director: Donna Deitch
Stars: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley
Gay cinema has become pleasingly normalised in contemporary filmmaking. Indeed, most of the very best modern romance films centre on same-sex couples. Though the movies have opened up, the world still holds its prejudices, and it is perhaps this ongoing idea of the frowned on or forbidden that stokes the fires of these films, makes the romances burn all the brighter. Consider the widespread critical acclaim for films depicting the love between two men in recent years (examples: God’s Own Country, Call Me By Your Name) and even more so for films focusing on women (Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The Handmaiden, Disobedience). Looking at this second set – which represent a few among many – and you will find men behind the camera shooting long sex scenes. Blue Is The Warmest Colour came under fire for the male gaze of its director Abdellatif Kechiche during the lingering and voracious sex scenes. Park Chan-Wook went to great measures to make his actors feel comfortable for The Handmaiden, but his eye remains present even so. And Sebastián Lelio’s effort in Disobedience is perhaps the most awkward and obtrusive example of recent times.
Over thirty years ago, however, we find this now accepted dramatic ground being covered by a female director. Donna Deitch was an experienced filmmaker in avant-garde and documentary circles, but Desert Hearts was her fiction feature debut; a mid-80’s masterpiece deliberately calibrated for accessibility, and which shows how woman-on-woman sex can be filmed – and filmed well – without this sense of leering compromise.
Helen Shaver plays Vivian Bell; a New York professor arriving in 1950s Reno to divorce her husband, staying at a dusty dude ranch operated by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley). During her stay she becomes infatuated with a local young woman, Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). With its desert setting connecting dots across the map of western cinema, Desert Hearts is a kind of proto-Brokeback Mountain taking place on the other side of the gender line, but throwing the clash of class and societal place into the mix, too.
Vivian is an uptight middle class New Yorker. She is well-spoken, prissy, prone to snobbishness (Shaver’s voice and demeanor are reminiscent of Kathleen Turner’s, for reference, though Shaver is perfect in the part). Cay works at a casino and is vivacious and open. Her free-spirited nature is part of the allure for Vivian, who envies and admires her liberty. It’s there in Cay’s ravishing introduction; driving backward along a strip of road. The act is rebellious and confident. Before we know anything else about her we recognise that she is a person free to pushes against social norms.
Matching a buttoned-down, repressed individual with a youthful and carefree counterpart is a well-hewn staple of romantic cinema. The New Yorker isolated in a country setting plays to fish-out-of-water comedy traditions, too. And it is by playing to these established tropes that Deitch’s agenda becomes clear. She wants her audience to feel comfortable in the presence of Vivian and Cay. She wants us to recognise their dynamic from the plethora of heterosexual examples we’ve seen throughout cinema history. Then, by the time we reach the second and third acts, as the homosexual subtext becomes text, she has her audience hooked. This is filmmaking that can be viewed as both conscientious and very, very smart. Deitch has spoken of how she saw the story – and its Reno setting – as a reimagining of John Huston’s The Misfits. Her approach to then-radical material is to present it as classic.
The film – wonderfully restored and available as part of the Criterion Collection – carries an 18 certificate due, in large part, to a strong sex scene that takes place in its last half hour. And it is this scene that becomes especially interesting when viewed in contrast to its cousins shot by men in the modern examples itemised above.
By this point in the story Vivian has been cast out of Frances’ ranch in a complicated volley of outrage and jealousy from the matriarch. We find her now in residence at a more typical skyscraping Reno hotel. Cay pays a visit. A montage tells us that the two have spent days apart, enough time for Vivian to have indulged all manner of ruminations and resentments. There’s a rift between them. At first Vivian is loath to even let Cay in, but she relents. Vivian is only wearing a gown, which makes her self-conscious following their last meeting, when they kissed romantically in the rain. What happens in the hotel room is not your traditional Hollywood-style seduction. The writing is more honest, and direct. More knowing.
Vivian, in the en suite, says everything that has happened to her is a blur. Deitch ratchets focus and Vivian becomes a blur. A visual joke, perhaps? But the reason for the shift in focus is two-fold. Unseen by Vivian, Cay has undressed and gotten into bed. Deitch reveals this with an incidental camera swerve. An almost comic reveal. But Vivian remains large in the foreground. Her reaction, at first funny for sharing our surprise, is immediately more complex and nuanced. Shaver’s performance is phenomenal. They’re both phenomenal.
Deitch has described the scene as having a rhythm that is “three steps forward, two steps back”, and its rather apt. It is a dance. And a negotiation. “I want you to put your clothes back on and leave,” Vivian says. But it’s not what she wants. Cay knows it. We know it. The scene becomes about willing. “I’m not taking off my robe,” Vivian says next, but her resolve has slackened. Cay makes a joke of it and breaks the tension. There’s no force in the scene. It’s a seduction, but one that comes from the heart. Cay is putting Vivian at ease, just as Deitch put her audience at ease. She touches Vivian’s face and from there its delicately observed sensuality, fragility and emotional honesty. There’s no music. Just distant church bells and trains (trains open and close the film, too). In terms of integrity and realism, it’s among the best sex scenes ever committed to film, filled with time and space. Deitch fades to black on an orgasm, then has the wit and confidence to bring us back to another. Here, gratefully, both parties are afforded their release. They’re on equal footing.
There are a hundred reasons to love Desert Hearts besides this. There’s Robert Elswit’s cinematography. A costly soundtrack for a low-budget film that features the evocative likes of ‘Get Rhythm’ and ‘Be Bop A Lula’. Etc. Etc. Reasons upon reasons. It may seem as though I’ve chosen the most salacious part to go deep on (so to speak). But it is rare to find a sex scene so extraordinarily well thought-through, that is vital to the scene that precedes it, that is vital to the entire narrative. Sex on our screens has become commonplace and, thanks to the advent of the internet, banal. Desert Hearts and Deitch remind us that it can be filmed in ways that serve the characters and not just the leering or squeamish viewers. Sex is important. It’s worth doing it right.