A cornerstone for gay cinema, “Desert Hearts” is director Donna Deitch’s first scripted feature, but also a rare coming out in independent cinema and the romance genre. It’s 1959 and Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) needs a divorce. She rides in on a train to Reno, Nevada to fulfill and establish a six-week residency, all while trying to maintain her collected and prim composure. Frances (Audra Lindley) shows Vivian around and offers her habitation for her stay in her ranch with women in similar situations. It’s soon that the free-spirited, artistic, and younger Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) comes into Vivian’s life, striking an inclination between the unlikely two. The two women soon become very acquainted as Frances sees Cay as the daughter she never had. Cay offers to show Vivian the ropes and even to take her horseback riding if she agrees to take off her reading glasses.
Desert Hearts is an adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 romance novel called “In the Desert of the Heart” and plays like a modern western with its internalized and external character’s conflict set in the Nevada desert affixed to its heteronormative scheme. It’s the Wild West so to speak, and while it may not be exactly the bastion of freedom the West could conceivably provide, it still is very much in enveloped in traditional romance of 1959 America. Kay’s openness about herself and whom she chooses to love is quite revolutionary considering her occupation and station in life. Her job as a change girl, exchanging bills for quarters and fending off men, doesn’t exactly give her the power to be who she is in a typical sense. But as Vivian reminds her, Kay has much less to lose being on the low-totem pole of occupation out West, she isn’t a professor at Columbia expected to maintain an expected lifestyle back East. Love just seems to get in the way.
Cay soon follows Vivian and makes a stakeout of their mutual feelings. The first sexual encounter between Kay and Vivian, taking place in Vivian’s hotel room after being uprooted by Frances who objects to their blossoming affair, is not only humorous but also genuinely erotic and bold. Kay responds to Vivian’s declaration of not taking off her coat with, “Well, everybody draws the line somewhere”, is a bit self-aware enough to find that romantic tension sweet spot. It feels rewarding to see two people falling in love and exploring the boundaries of not only themselves but society at large. It’s when the outside world can witness their coupling that soon becomes problematic, as Vivian can’t shake her own paranoia and neurosis even when a group of flirtatious men sends drinks their way.
This pressure is assumed through Vivian mostly and “Desert Hearts” doesn’t go overboard with loud homophobia to establish the rubrics here. Through the characterization of Kay and Vivian, we learn about their world more so than we’re told by outside forces overarching to drive these struggles home. The scene where Frances chastises Vivian for her supposed seduction of Cay is about all you get beyond one-off comments here and there. It’s essential to establish that the love that dares not speak its name has actual consequences and complications in this society beyond gawking. It’s a classic, old-fashioned love tale that truly spends time developing its world naturally, showcasing the complicated social dynamics authentically and adequately.
“Desert Hearts” arrives for the Criterion Collection in a restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Robert Elswit with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. The film is noticeably upgraded and doesn’t look its age with this enhancement. Also provided is an eloquent reading of notes for the audio commentary by Deitch herself as she contextualizes not only the technical aspects but the emotional points of her adapting such a personally revered work. Also included is a conversation between Deitch and actor Jane Lynch, who is an obsessive fan of the film, and it really does highlight how significant this film is to a lot of people. Actors Shaver and Charbonneau are also interviewed and provide a lot of insight into their experience making such a seminal work and the low-key efforts involved in shooting such controversial subject matter. Charbonneau was actually pregnant during production and there are some good anecdotes to be had. “Remembering Reno”, featuring Deitch, Elswit, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall, talks about the production of the film and how it got made specifically. Also included is an excerpt from “Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule”, a 1994 documentary about the author that covers the book’s mixed response from the public and media. Critic B. Ruby Rich also provides an essay. Overall the supplemental material is quite extensive and informative and gives new life for this pioneering love tale.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and FlimStruck