Many people tend to buy the high end DVDs. Those discs that feature full 5.1 sound, many extras and whose films where blockbuster hits. If you stay with this mode of purchase you are going to miss a lot of worth while little independent films currently available on this format. Among the films in this category is the 1986 low budget film Desert Hearts. This film is the story of a woman in her thirties,Vivian (Helen Shaver) a professor from New York City who has lived an uneventful life in a growing loveless marriage. Having decided upon seeking a divorce she moves to Reno where it is required that she establish legal residency prior to proceeding. To achieve this end she books herself into a little ranch on the outskirts of the city. The ranch is owned by an older woman Frances (Audra Lindley), a person with a straightforward life style that the meek professor is not at all used to. Also living at the ranch is Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), apparently the stepdaughter of Frances who works in a near by casino. Cay is more attracted to women than to men and soon finds herself smitten by Vivian. While the story does contain an explicit love scene between Cay and Vivian the film is by no means exploitative. The scene is pivotal to the development of the characters. The basis of the film is the developmental arc in the characters. Vivian at first is so properly dressed that she is completely out of place at the ranch. Slowly, as her attitudes change and grow her wardrobe seems to reflect it. Business like suits change to more causal attire. The screenplay by Natalie Cooper is dramatic, poignant and ultimately touching.
The acting in this film is full of many subtle nuances. At times the parts are almost underplayed drawing the viewer into the world created in the plot. Shaver shows the most growth in her character. From a woman always doing the right thing, from the right marriage to a fellow professor, the right clothes and the right attitudes she transforms into a person questioning life and how she is to live the rest of hers. Although Shaver had been acting for about nine years prior to this movie, Desert Hearts in 1986 was just before her breakthrough form Canadian cinema to the USA. Most familiar from her plethora of television appearances, Ms Shaver has talent in abundance. Recently she has started to direct in such venues as the new Outer Limits and has also had a hand in production. She is one of those overnight success stories that took two decades of hard work to achieve. Patricia Charbonneau is as talented as she is beautiful. Also best know for television work her career never seemed to have had the chance that it should have had. In this film she is not the stereotypical movie lesbian. She plays the role with sensitivity and style as a young woman that knows what she wants from life is not the norm but she is still determined to have it. Her portrayal is a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood stereotypes that would have ruined this film. Yet another actress best know for her TV work is also present here. Lindley, most recognized for her long role on the TV hit Threes Company, shows that she has more talent than any sitcom can demonstrate. As her characters jealousy becomes more overt Lindley does not fall into the common trap of overplaying the role. Instead she hands in a performance worthy of the highest acclaim. While the cast is from television they certainly show they can handle the big screen better than most.
The director Donna Deitch, is also from the realm of television. She has directed some of the most acclaimed shows around including ER, NYPD Blue and the Women of Brewster Place. As with the actresses in the film, the director demonstrates just how good the talent employed by some television shows can be. The direction is nothing fancy. Just good solid lighting, excellent framing of each scene and an admirable sense of direction presented throughout the film. Deitch has a great eye for detail which helps transport the viewer to the fifties. Lesser directors would have succumbed to the temptation of playing up the lesbian scene. To do so would have degraded a tender drama into a piece of exploitation. There is an excellent commentary by the direct that helps you understand the decisions that had to be made and how they were made.
The DVD is not what many would call a full use of the technology. The sound is digital mono. I found it better to bypass the digital feed to my receiver and play the film in theater mode. The picture is non-anamorphic 1.85:1. While not spectacular it gets the job done. DVD does more than present leading edge technology. First and foremost it preserves films of merit. This is what is done here.