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Desert Hearts

By Simon Leake

When college professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno in 1959 to get a quickie divorce, the last thing on her mind is romance. A prim intellectual, crippled by a sterile marriage ("We're a professional couple") and hiding behind her education, she moves into a ranch belonging to Frances Parker (Audra Lindley) and tries to keep to herself. But Parker's beautiful, sassy tomboy of a stepdaughter proves to be quite a distraction, and a love affair slowly blossoms. Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) refuses to be bound by convention or by expectations of how a nice girl should behave, and her devil-may-care attitude both attracts and terrifies the nervous professor.

Shaver is terrific as Vivian, and the slow thawing of her character is beautifully paced--you can feel the tension break when she finally lets down her guard. Another strong performance comes from Audra Lindley as Frances. She's a tough old bird with a drinking problem, but Lindley keeps the character from descending into stereotype, and she gives full rein to the tragic side of this lonely woman, especially as she struggles with her reaction to the developing relationship between Cay and Vivian.

There are scenes in Desert Hearts that would be painfully clichéd if they appeared in a heterosexual romance, and even here they only just escape that fate--relying a little too much on significant glances and lines that just don't sound like real conversation. Nevertheless, first-time director Deitch breathes new life into a standard straight-arrow-meets-free-spirit plot, and steadfastly refuses to turn this love story into an "issues movie." Add to that a strong feel for the period and a soundtrack filled with the likes of Patsy Cline and Gene Vincent, and the result is a warm, well-acted film that packs a real emotional punch.

 

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FILM FACTS

Buy this VHS movie from Amazon.com! (Click here!)Buy this DVD from Amazon.com! (Click here!)Soundtrack unavailable at Amazon.com - try eBay (see links below)Rated RNot on an American Film Institute 100 list

Director: Donna Deitch

Stars: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Dean Butler, Jeffrey Tambor

Released: August 28, 1985

Availability: DVD VHS


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