April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

You’ve seen her before. She’s a free spirit and an untamed force. She can spark passion in the most passive, uptight, downtrodden square around. She can teach a person about life, love and sex—usually not in that order. From such classics as Cabaret to such clinkers as The Girl From Petrovka, the movies have enshrined this lady: the libertine liberator. In Desert Hearts she rides again, but there’s a twist: Her consort is another woman. Despite the addition of a sexual switcheroo (and a relatively explicit love-making scene), there’s nothing really new or novel taking place in this film. As soon as you see those dainty white gloves on English professor Helen (Best Defense) Shaver, who has come to Reno in 1959 to get a divorce, you know she’s going to get her proper little life dirty very soon. Her emancipator proves to be a spunky casino change-maker, Patricia Charbonneau, who had a small role in Without a Trace. She resides on the ranch where Shaver mopes while she awaits her divorce decree. Adapted from the 1964 cult novel Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule, this romance falls for all the clichés of the genre: As usual the working-class woman awakens the intellectual to life’s erotic and exotic possibilities, but, as usual, the class differences prohibit a lasting romance. “We’ve been saying goodbye from the beginning,” Shaver tells her lover at their teary farewell. Making her feature debut, filmmaker Donna Deitch treats her heroines’ sexuality as a matter of fact, but her direction is nevertheless defensive. She directs every scene with the emotions italicized, as if she’s got to convince the audience that these events warrant our attention. Her good ole girls talk too loud, laugh too hard and cry too often. In the process of pleading for sexual tolerance, Desert Hearts does some discriminating of its own: The movie seems to be decreeing that rural folks just feel a lot more than city slickers. It’s guilty of country chauvinism. (R)

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