As impressive a directorial debut as it is a cinematic landmark, Donna Deitch’s 1985 masterpiece Desert Hearts joins the ranks of the Criterion Collection as not only one of the few pieces of queer content to ascend to its ranks, but also one of the few lesbian narratives to be directed by a woman. While the title, adapted from the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart by Canadian author Jane Rule, has long been a trivia talking point thanks to its distinction as the first mainstream film to positively and respectfully depict a lesbian romance, Deitch’s accomplishment outlasts the restrictive contexts of both the cultural tendencies of 1985 and its 1959 Reno, Nevada setting.
The independently made film, which was shot quite impressively on a shoestring budget and features a handful of poignant performances, played at Telluride, Toronto, Locarno, and Sundance, snatching Helen Shaver a Bronze Leopard for Best Actress at the Swiss Fest, winning the Grand Jury Prize out of Utah, and landing Patricia Charbonneau an Indie Spirit Award nomination. Like many women, particularly those developing any sort of queer content, Deitch’s career in narrative cinema was short-lived, despite the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who dispatched her to direct two episodes of “The Women of Brewster Place” in 1989, which was followed by a neo-noir sophomore effort in 1994, Criminal Passion. However, she’s amassed an impressive resume in television—but it is her directorial debut which remains an achingly endearing and hopeful piece of influential LGBT cinema.
In 1959, Columbia University Professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) travels to Reno, Nevada to establish a six-week residency and obtain a quickie divorce from her husband, another academic with whom she separated rather amicably. However, the experience has left her reeling. Emotionally unsteady and unsure of her future, her vulnerable state leads to a connection with wild child Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a raven-haired rebel who was more-or-less raised by Frances (Audra Lindley), who cared for Cay’s father until his death. Slowly, Cay’s attention brings Vivian out of her shell and a simmering seduction begins, much to the chagrin of Frances and the locals who have long been suspicious of Cay’s sexuality.
In several ways, Deitch’s debut plays like a sobering variation on the George Cukor 1939 classic The Women (and not the unsuccessful 2008 Diane English remake), in which at least, behind the scenes many of the main players are female (Natalie Cooper adapted the screenplay from Rule’s novel and Jeannine Oppewall served as the production designer) while the film features a prominent, fierce quartet of women who are more or less mostly defined by their relationships and understandings of other women. The shortened residency requirement of Reno, Nevada and its subsequent ‘divorce ranches’ makes for compelling subtext for Vivian, who is literally removing herself from the yoke of heteronormativity and finally exploring her sexuality in the limbo period of her Nevada residency.
A quietly effective Audra Lindley (perhaps best remembered as Mrs. Roper from “Three’s Company,” but who strikes an eerie resemblance to Bulle Ogier) manages to be the strongest dramatic catalyst as Cay’s care taker, but occupying an undefined part in the young woman’s life. Resignedly, she defines her role as “a pair of hands and a familiar face,” and yet it’s her rejection of Cay’s sexuality which cuts the deepest. Character actress Andra Akers is warm and effective as Cay’s good Judy, a confidante whose flirtations with her younger friend sometimes feels a bit more amorous than either of them would be willing to admit.
But the core of Desert Hearts is the tentative, repressed yearning which boils believably into a bloom of passion between the two women, who are divided by age, class, and circumstance. Rule’s novel was, assumedly, largely influenced by her own affair with an academic woman a few years her senior, and its comes across in the careful characterizations and the hopefulness which is allowed to accompany their relationship. As the desert yawns before Vivian upon her arrival in Reno, Lindley’s Frances jokingly calls the expanse “God’s backyard,” which hints at the taint LGBT people are often made to feel they represent beneath the gaze of the supposedly inherent, distilled purity of what is considered Americanness (it also recalls the rural romance of Brokeback Mountain, and its predecessor God’s Own Country, films which evoke this sense of guilt and shame fostered by heterosexual counterparts in those cherished rural realms which supposedly were the stomping grounds for what once made ‘America Great’).
But Desert Hearts doesn’t attempt to right the cultural admonishments of patriarchy, and instead plays out quietly and forcefully, formulating Vivian’s emotional struggle as an internalized one. Brittle, cynical, and perhaps a bit pretentious, she often announces exactly what she’s thinking (“I want to be free of who I’ve been”) but immediately removes herself from any scene which would force her to truly examine who she is now. Deitch assembles an equally impressive array of period music, from Johnny Cash to Patsy Cline, conveying a statement of a narrative dealing, quite simply, with matters of the heart. It’s captured best in an initial kiss scene between Cay and Vivian. Soaked from the rainstorm they’ve been caught in, Vivian ducks into a car, only to roll down her window and let Cay’s force of nature take over. Obsessed with safe spaces and containment (in other words, the closet), Helen Shaver’s portrayal as Vivian, a woman of a certain age in a certain time, is the film’s beautiful, vibrant centerfold as she learns to accept and eventually present herself.
Criterion presents Desert Hearts with a newly restored 4K digital transfer in 1.85:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are notably administered (you’ve never seen something more sensual set in Reno thanks, in part, to Robert Elswit’s cinematography), and Deitch’s recorded audio commentary track from 2007 is available. Several other extra features are also available, including an essay from B. Ruby Rich (who wrote the essay insert for the last grand lesbian title added to Criterion, 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color).
Donna Deitch and Jane Lynch:
In this nineteen-minute conversation between Donna Deitch and Jane Lynch, recorded by Criterion in Los Angeles, 2017, the director discusses the give years it took to raise money to make Desert Hearts, speaking of adapting the novel and using John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) as a template, while Lynch comments on the importance and the effect the film had on her.
Women in Love:
Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau appear alongside Donna Deitch in this twenty-six-minute feature filmed by Criterion in New York in 2017 as they discuss the process of their characterizations in Desert Hearts.
Deitch converses with DP Robert Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall in this twenty-minute conversation recorded by Criterion in Los Angeles during August of 2017 as they discuss their recollections on the making of Desert Hearts.
Fiction and Other Truths – A Film About Jane Rule:
Two excerpts from the 1994 documentary Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule highlights the importance of her landmark 1964 novel Desert of the Heart.
As enduringly tender as it is an important landmark in queer cinema, Desert Hearts remains sensual and provocative, while director Donna Deitch is a worthy addition to the Criterion canon.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆