Desert Hearts, based loosely on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, was a groundbreaking film of the time, this was the first lesbian movie that didn’t end in pain, or with one of the women ending up with a man. Desert Hearts was also a big art house hit, which must have been gratifying for director Donna Deitch, who after more than four years of raising money to make the film, finally resorted to selling her own home.
Set in 1959, Helen Shaver plays 35-year-old Columbia University professor Vivian Bell. A rather uptight woman, she’s traveled to Reno, Nevada to establish a six-week residency and gain a quicky divorce from her husband. She stays at a guest ranch with other women also waiting to get divorced. As Vivian herself admits, her life is about “order,” and her vision of herself as an academic and an upstanding citizen certainly doesn’t include a relationship with a woman. Thus, she’s completely unprepared when she meets, and discovers she has deep feelings for a free-spirited 25-year-old casino worker Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). If she acts on those feelings, what will it mean for her professional reputation?
Cay, a daughter figure to ranch proprietor Frances (Audra Lindley), who raised her after the death of her father, France’s lover. While Cay is comfortable with herself, co-workers view her as an oddity and as artistic as she is, slow, dusty Reno leaves her bored a lot of the time. Nonetheless, she’s been living at home with Frances, waiting to meet someone who “counts.” Almost immediately she realizes that someone is Vivian.
Desert Hearts succeeds by allowing the relationship between Cay and Vivian to unfold in a natural way. It’s almost painfully slow at times as Vivian struggles with her conflicted feelings. Deitch is to be commended for the small, but sensuous touches she interjects. When Vivian stops to watch Cay riding a horse outside her bedroom window, but unsuccessfully tries to hide behind a curtain to avoid being caught. It’s a highly relatable moment.
Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau have an undeniable chemistry and are the main reason the film is so effective. Shaver is excellent (and occasionally heartbreaking) as the nervous, repressed Vivian, desperately trying to come to terms with her feelings for Cay, and all that means for her carefully structured existence. Charbonneau’s Cay is a romantic, a catalyst not only for Vivian’s evolution as a woman, but for others around her, a reason to question the conservative beliefs that have governed their lives.
Audra Lindley (best known as Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company) is wonderful as Frances, a woman who raised Cay as her own daughter and wants her to be happy but is also afraid of losing her forever.
One of the first films to show a same sex relationship with a positive outcome, more than thirty years after its theatrical debut Desert Hearts remains a poignant tale about finding yourself and falling in love and has become a classic in queer cinema.
The Blu-ray from Criterion is advertised as “a new, restored, 4K digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Robert Elswit and created by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and Sundance Institute.” The result is a wonderfully clean image. Details impress throughout the presentation. The colors, particularly the blue skies, really pop. Some of the drearier interiors maintain a natural look without any apparent artifacts.
The lossless PCM Monaural 1.0 soundtrack is occasionally flat, but the film’s music, including the songs of Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ella Fitzgerald, and Kitty Wells among others, sounds surprisingly strong. Dialogue is clean, clear, and concise throughout.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Director Donna Deitch: Recorded in 2007, Deitch discusses bringing the book to the screen and recalls various aspects of the production.
- Donna Deitch and Jane Lynch (HD, 18:57) Recorded for Criterion in August 2017, Deitch and actress Jane Lynch discuss Jane Rule’s novel, the films production, the relationship between Vivian and Cay, and Lynch discusses the impact the film had on her.
- Women in Love (HD, 26:26) Recorded for Criterion in 2017, actors Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau discuss working with director Donna Deitch and explain how the film impacted their careers and lives.
- Remembering Reno (HD, 19:55) Filmed for Criterion in August 2017, director Donna Deitch, cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer Jeanine Oppewall discuss the visual look of Desert Hearts and the shoot in Reno, Nevada.
- Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule
- Excerpt One (HD, 6:47)
- Excerpt Two (HD, 2:47)
Two excerpts from Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s documentary Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule in which writer Jane Rule discusses Desert of the Heart (1964) and its message. Also included are clips from archival interviews with director Donna Deitch, architect Abraham Rogatnick, and Rick Bebout (Body Politic Collective Member) and others.
- Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring author B. Ruby Rich’s essay “The Thrill of It All” and technical credits.
Movie title: Desert Hearts (1985)
Director(s): Donna Deitch
Actor(s): Helen Shaver , Patricia Charbonneau , Audra Lindley , Gwen Welles , Dean Butler , James Staley
Genre: Drama, Romance