Classic Lesbian Romance 'Desert Hearts': Out at the Pictures

by Andre Soares
Patricia Charbonneau Helen Shaver Desert Hearts Donna Deitch
Patricia Charbonneau, Helen Shaver in Desert Hearts

The British Film Institute will screen four films with (at least some) gay content in their “Out at the Pictures” series in the next two months. The four titles are: Desert Hearts (1985), Get Real (1998), Julia (1977), and Crustacés et coquillages / Cockles and Muscles / Cote d'Azur (2005). The series will also feature “Generations of Love,” an intergenerational panel discussion. (See full schedule below.)

Based on Pentimento, Lillian Hellman's 1973 book of (highly fictionalized) memoirs in which Hellman discusses her close friendship with a woman named “Julia,” Julia is my favorite Fred Zinnemann film. Jane Fonda can be quite actressy, but her Lillian Hellman is perhaps her most sober, self-contained characterization, while in the title role Academy Award winner Vanessa Redgrave delivers one of the best performances of her career as the doomed Nazi fighter (apparently inspired by Muriel Gardiner's life story).

Also in the Julia cast: Academy Award winner Jason Robards, as Dashiell Hammett; Academy Award nominee Maximilian Schell; Hal Holbrook; Rosemary Murphy; Maurice Denham; veteran Cathleen Nesbitt (the grandmother in An Affair to Remember); and a very young Meryl Streep. First-rate screenplay adaptation by Alvin Sargent. (See the New York Times article on Muriel Gardiner's book Code Name “Mary.”)

Despite some unnecessary melodrama, especially a longwinded “gays-are-people-too” speech at the end, Simon Shore's 1998 coming-out and coming-of-age Get Real is worth a look chiefly because of Ben Silverstone's excellent performance as a gay teenager feeling the first pangs of love and lust. Adapted by Patrick Wilde from his own play.

Jean Marc-Barr, Gilbert Meki, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in Cote d'Azur
Jean Marc-Barr, Gilbert Meki, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in Cote d'Azur

Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's Cockles and Muscles (Cote d'Azur in the US) is the type of fluffy, feel-good comedy (with a musical number or two) that surely has an audience for it – unfortunately, however, I'm not part of it. The best things about the film are the French Riviera locations and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's charming wife whose husband's past comes back in the flesh by way of Jean-Marc Barr's scary-looking, tight tanktop-wearing stud.

I haven't seen Donna Deitch's 1985 Desert Hearts, considered by many a seminal point in the depiction of lesbian love on screen.

Additionally, on Feb. 19 the bfi will be hosting a preview of the 23rd London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival's program, which runs March 25-April 9, 2009, at the BFI Southbank. The “exclusive illustrated sneak preview” will feature a 45-minute presentation of the upcoming festival's highlights. Seats for the sneak preview are free, but must be booked via the box office. Tickets are restricted to BFI members and their guests only. Click here for ticket information.

“Out at the Pictures” Schedule and brief synopses from the bfi website:

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in Cote d'Azur

Cockles and Muscles

* Thu 22 Jan 18:30 NFT2
* Fri 30 Jan 20:45 NFT2

Deliciously warm-hearted and sexy comedy set in the South of France.

Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau in Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts

* Tue 3 Feb 18:20 NFT2
* Sat 14 Feb 20:45 NFT2

Groundbreaking, 1950s-set lesbian love story.

Queer as Folk

Generations of Love

* Thu 8 Jan 14:00 Studio

View highlights from the BFI National Archive and share your thoughts and memories, with both young and older people welcome in this inter-generational session. This month we consider the generation gap. In a community which prides itself on accepting difference, what is the status of cross-generational understanding? (Image: Queer as Folk)

Bert Gordon, Ben Silverstone in Get Real

Get Real

* Fri 27 Feb 20:40 NFT2
* Sat 28 Feb 18:10 NFT3

Feel-good coming out comedy, a defining moment in British gay cinema.

Jane Fonda in Julia


* Tue 20 Jan 20:40 NFT2
* Sat 31 Jan 17:50 NFT2

Fred Zinnemann's sumptuous WW2 film, with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

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