Donna Deitch’s swooning and sensual first narrative feature, Desert Hearts, was groundbreaking upon its 1985 release: a love story about two women, made entirely independently, on a self-financed shoestring budget, by a woman. In the 1959-set film, an adaptation of a beloved novel by Jane Rule, straitlaced East Coast professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno to file for divorce but winds up catching the eye of someone new, the younger free spirit Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), touching off a slow seduction that unfolds against a breathtaking desert landscape. With undeniable chemistry between its two leads, an evocative jukebox soundtrack, and vivid cinematography by Robert Elswit, Desert Hearts beautifully exudes a sense of tender yearning and emotional candor.
Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts has received a new 2K restoration and is being released on Blu-ray by Criterion, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p/24hz on a dual-layer disc. The restoration comes from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative.
A lot of work has gone into this and it’s a wonderful looking final image. The restoration work has cleared just about everything and we get such a sharp, clean picture in the end. It’s a grainy film, getting heavier at times, but the encode handles it wonderfully and the details really do pop off screen, even in the numerous landscape shots. If there is one weak area it can be the shadows in some darker sequences, which can crush out some details and flatten the image a bit, but everything else, including the colours (really love the blue skies) look wonderful. Even some of the smokier interiors retain a natural look, with no banding or other artifacts present.
I’m again realizing how spoiled I am by a lot of restorations recently because this one looks absolutely outstanding yet I can’t say I was in anyway surprised by the final results, which I guess I fear may lead into a feeling there is a lack of enthusiasm on my part here. But please, rest assured, this really is a great final presentation and the work that has gone into it is extraordinary.
The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack manages to be a robust presentation despite being limited to the center channel. There’s surprising range to the whole track and fidelity is excellent, best showcased in the film’s 50’s soundtrack, which is loud enough when it needs to be. The track also doesn’t suffer from any noticeable damage or distortion. It sounds really good.
This special edition from Criterion provides a few new supplements while also porting over the audio commentary featuring director Donna Deitch that was recorded in 2007 for a previous DVD release. This track, content wise, is full of great stuff about the film’s production and Deitch’s aims behind it. She explains her desire to make a movie involving a lesbian relationship that doesn’t end in tragedy and how she saw the story as a twist on The Misfits. She talks about deleted sequences (Jeffrey Tambor’s character actually had a bigger role), which sadly don’t make it elsewhere on this release, and then she of course talks about stretching that small budget as far as she could (and she figures 20% of it went to the soundtrack of the film, and she had to sell her house to get that). This is all well and good but the unfortunate thing here is that it sounds like Deitch is reading straight from a script and she reads it in a fairly dispassionate manner. You can sometimes feel where she may have meant to put the emphasis on some sort of revelation but forgot to do so, like at the end where the makes a plea to you, the listener, to help stop video piracy, which I’m sure she is passionate about, but comes off half-hearted here (and it’s awkwardly placed, too). Maybe it’s a case of nervousness and that’s understandable, but it’s admittedly hard to stay engaged, which is a shame because again the content found on the track is quite good. (Deitch also mentions she is working on a sequel, but there is no sign of where this might be currently in any of the newly created features on the disc.)
A bit better, at least in terms of engagement and presentation, is a 19-minute discussion between Donna Deitch and actor Jane Lynch. This ends up being a nice blend of discussion on the effect of the film along with its production, Deitch sort of bullet-pointing topics covered in her commentary. But Lynch’s contribution proves most effective, explaining the impact the film had on her at that point in her life, and what specific moments have stuck with her. Deitch is also substantially more loose here in comparison to her solo commentary track, making this a far more engaging endeavor. It’s a really strong interview.
Criterion’s next feature, Women in Love, is sold as a discussion between Deitch and the film’s two leads, Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, but is really solo interviews with the two leads intercut with a few moments of the three together talking. Both Shaver and Charbonneau talk about getting their roles and the little bit of blow back they got from them (even Shaver’s agent, who was gay, told her the role would probably kill her career). The most difficult moment in the film was unsurprisingly the love scene, though Deitch worked hard to make sure everyone was comfortable, and the portions from the group interview we get here cover those details. Getting everyone together again is great, but it is a bit odd that the three got together and we only get a few minutes’ worth of footage of this.
The next discussion ends up being entirely a group one, with Deitch, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall. The three talk primarily about the look of the film and finding the appropriate locations. Both Deitch and Elswit commend Oppewall in creating this lived in world that suited the characters, which Elswit was especially proud of capturing on film. They also share various stories from the production, though I can’t say I was too shocked to learn that when scouting locations and gaining permission to film on them they had to hide the script due to the subject matter. This interview runs about 20-minutes.
Criterion then digs up two excerpts from the documentary Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule, which is of course about author Jane Rule, who would take refuge in Canada during the era of the McCarthy hearings. The two excerpts, totaling under 9-minutes altogether, focus on both the novel Desert of the Heart and then Deitch’s film adaptation. The first excerpt, covering the novel’s release, is the most fascinating. Released in 1962 it was well ahead of its time and it of course caused quite stir, a number of reviews shared that basically amount to “won’t someone please think of the children!” in their reactions to the novel. To also offer some context for the time the documentary even shares a clip of Canadian M.P. Eldon Woolliams talking about how homosexuality should be “dealt with” medically. The second excerpt features a quick interview with Deitch about the film and then a rather horrifying comment from Rule about what comes with fame. It would have been great to get the whole documentary but the excerpts are both fantastic.
Closing off the disc is the Janus films re-release theatrical trailer, and then the included insert features an excellent essay on the film and its importance by B. Ruby Rich. Outside of maybe adding a scholarly extra or two (though the essay does fill that gap) it’s a nicely rounded set of features that give some wonderful details on the film’s making.
It’s a really wonderful special edition for the film, delivering on all fronts with a strong audio/visual presentation and a strong set of features. Highly recommended.