Times Film Critic

You can find two crackerjack performances in Donna Deitch's "Desert Hearts" (at the Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas): Audra Lindley's possessive, lonely dude ranch owner and Patricia Charbonneau's dark-eyed, dark-haired gay hell-raiser. But for a story about sexual awakening and discovery, "Desert Hearts" is a taut, fatally careful movie with no looseness--and no abandon--to it and no feeling for detail that would let these characters really live.

It's set during those obligatory six weeks in Reno that constituted divorce residency in 1959. To Lindley's drooping dude ranch comes New York English professor Helen Shaver, her shoulders tightly up around her ears, her hair in a French twist, her marriage of 12 years over by her own choice.

In the movie's best bit of action, Shaver and Charbonneau "meet" as their cars head in opposite directions down a Reno highway. Charbonneau, who has already sped by, is so taken by one glance at this Eastern frozen Popsicle ( why? ) that she throws her own car into reverse until the two are window to window, with an irritated Lindley in between.

It's a killer entrance, and Charbonneau is able to sustain the same shiny-bright energy throughout the film, but there's little Shaver can do with this dreadful stereotype of the brittle Eastern "intellectual."

Charbonneau and Lindley are sort of surrogate mother and daughter. Lindley is still boozily mourning her longtime love, Charbonneau's father, by whom Lindley had a son (Alex McArthur), now a teen-ager. To the older woman, these two are her only tangible links to her dead man, and she's holding on to both of them for dear life. She lets Charbonneau have a cottage on the ranch although she can't reconcile herself to the young woman's gay one-night stands.

Jane Rule's "Desert of the Heart" 1964 novel on which the film was based was vastly different. What the novel had, in addition to a crackling intelligence and many-layered characters, was an absolute sense of place. If a girl worked as "a change apron" in a casino--as Charbonneau does--you learned that those aprons, full of coins, could weigh as much as 60 pounds, and you learned firsthand about the rigors of that life. Deitch's direction and especially Natalie Cooper's adaptation have scrubbed away that reality, added some truly gawdawful dialogue ("He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart," "Where'd you learn to kiss like that?") and given us, in a '50s setting, slick '50s cliches about attraction between women.

Charbonneau's fascination for Shaver is simply a given: The teacher has no magnetism and no dialogue that would let us believe her either as someone who taught, learned from and loved English literature or as someone with depths under her chilliness. And nothing rings true, either, with all this talk about their utterly different social worlds, since Shaver never says anything that anchors her to any world at all, let alone a rarefied one.

The film's long, extremely intimate lovemaking scene (the film is rated R) lets us admire the patterns and the shapes that two beautiful women's bodies make against each other, but as a scene it feels forced. It's the Obligatory Sequence, with no lighting, dialogue or chemistry to help it along. (There's far more electricity when Charbonneau reaches in to kiss Shaver through an open car window during a desert rainstorm; you feel surprise, attraction and confusion sweep over Shaver.)

Although you can feel the budget limitations with every truncated scene, it's clear that Deitch is adept with actors and with the camera (Robert Elswit was the cinematographer). Lindley's anguished, angry earth mother is the picture's most authoritative performance, and McArthur as her kind, levelheaded teen-age son is one of those shining demonstrations of how much can be done with a tiny role.

Charbonneau is still a magnetic presence who dominates her every scene. Unfortunately, it's not as easy to sympathize with her character, who must have everything her way. Why, in 1959, must Shaver, with a career to consider, be seen as unreasonable because she doesn't proclaim to the world her precipitous love affair with a younger woman--especially when the romance is a full two days old. The movie is all for "risk," in the name of attraction; for all its love of risk, it's a remarkably old-fashioned, cliche-fettered work.

'DESERT HEARTS' A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release of A Desert Hearts Production. Producer/director Donna Deitch. Screenplay Natalie Cooper, based on the novel "Desert of the Heart" by Jane Rule. Editor Robert Estrin. Camera Robert Elswit. Production design Jeannine Oppewall. With Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Audra Akers, Gwen Welles, Dean Butler, Alex McArthur, Anthony Ponzini.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).

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