In the 1980s, a time when uplifting lesbian relationships were nonexistent in media, Donna Deitch aimed to deliver much-needed change. Though laid-back in tone, her debut feature Desert Hearts was loud enough to triumph, going on to make one of the biggest impacts that queer cinema has witnessed. Engulfed by crystal clear skies, breathtaking landscapes and buoyant jukebox tracks, the 1959-set romance between Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) and Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau) — based on Jane Rule’s novel Desert of the Heart — remains timeless and radical, even in a climate where LGBTQ films are more abundant than ever. Remarkably, the drama exhibits a character-driven experience of repression, openness and simmering desire. The women at the narrative’s center learn that love is not only an inescapable force, but also a guide to learning about themselves and the courage within each other.
Tightly wound English professor Vivian arrives in Reno, Nevada, completely unready for the connection that awaits her. Temporarily residing at a guest ranch in the city to obtain a quicker divorce, she’s emotionally fragile and would rather keep to herself. Vivian’s 12-year marriage with her husband was merely based on keeping a respected image intact, rather than being in love. Unfulfilled with the dullness of that life, she aches to begin anew, declaring, “I want to be free of who I’ve been.” The audience gets acquainted with Cay in a manner that exemplifies her free spirit. Driving backwards in her convertible down a highway at full speed, she is pure adrenaline. Instead of appearing rebellious, her wide grin expresses a warm, genuine nature. Being a gay woman — and not caring what others think about it — makes others frown upon Cay, but nothing in the world could cease her from being unashamed. The inclusion of both a confident lesbian character and a woman who eventually discovers her sexuality makes Desert Hearts ahead of its time. Viewers are given two unique glimpses at the lesbian experience, which is a testament to Deitch’s authenticity.
Cay and Vivian meet through Frances (Audra Lindley), the ranch’s owner, who views Cay like a daughter. Vivian has attempted to avoid contact while on her trip, but as she continues running into Cay, the more she enjoys being near her. Cay is immediately intrigued as well, while Vivian finds her to be a breath of fresh air. Their time together begins to increase, creating a companionship that revolves around truth and letting go. The entire way through, Shaver and Charbonneau’s chemistry is filled with raw emotion, delivering all the right looks, gestures and communication.
Robert Elswit’s evocative cinematography immerses viewers right into the Nevada environment. When outdoors, natural light and hazy blues contrast with the desert floor’s soft brown. The air and landscapes feel clean despite the film’s titular location, ridding any instance of dirt or debris from the frame. While indoors, colorful, moody lights are in use, enhancing emotions that belong to specific conversations and reactions.
Frances and others in the tight-knit city warn Vivian about Cay due to her sexuality, but she clearly disapproves of their criticism. Vivian might be the only one who looks at Cay for everything she is, beyond just a lesbian. Though Cay never allows gossip to bother her, someone who truly accepts her is exactly what she needs. Equally, while everyone has deemed Vivian a reserved intellectual, Cay doesn’t let that get in the way of her blossoming attraction. Aside from their natural bond, the lack of judgement towards their respective reputations allows them to be their true selves, offering mutual trust that’s only reserved for their interactions.
The lingering, undeniable tension comes alive as the women share a kiss in the pouring rain, the ideal backdrop for a moment as mesmerizing as this. Completely overwhelmed by it all — and taken aback by her own reciprocation — Vivian doesn’t know how to react. She tells herself that it’s evanescent, but deep down, she’s getting closer to the exhilarating energy of romance. That sensation manifests more intensely later on when they make love for the first time in a hotel room. The film’s overall grace elevates more than ever, with delicate lighting and transitions adding a layer of eroticism. There’s a wonderful intimacy to Cay and Vivian being enclosed in this room, isolated from the rest of the world, occasionally glancing at the city’s neon lights through the window in the midst of embrace. It’s all theirs, and nothing else matters but connection.
In Desert Hearts, love acts as a guide for its main characters, deepening their understanding of each other. Vivian enters the film restrained about her desires; the journey of getting through repression isn’t easy, but her new romantic connection eventually leads her through release. As for Cay, the confidence in who she loves influences her liberated essence, in turn directing her towards self-assurance. Love not only inspires Vivian and Cay’s distinct courage, but also drives their romance to grow and gradually become more urgent.
Deitch’s trailblazing film demonstrates that representation will always be essential. We deserve stories which not just include LGBTQ individuals, but go further to celebrate the beauty, strength and dynamics of that existence. Even though Desert Hearts contains a quiet mood, the moving narrative experience undoubtedly lives within many beholders. As Vivian and Cay ride off on a train together, an optimistic close to the film, the audience knows that love and bravery are in control.
Ciara Pitts (@CiaraNPitts) is a lesbian freelance writer with an obsession for film analysis and LGBTQ+ cinema. Her other interests include alternative music and endless rewatches of Thelma. She has previously written for AfterEllen and GO Magazine.