Desert Hearts was one of the key lesbian films of the ’80s, and made a small but important splash in the US independent scene when it came out in 1986. It’s sometimes regarded as the first film that gave a positive depiction of lesbians, but that is frankly false—John Sayles, for instance, beat them to it a few years previously with his film Lianna, which came out in 1983. It was, however, groundbreaking in that it was the first made by a woman and financed completely independently, and because it was mostly funded by investments by lesbians and feminists (although the biggest investment came from a gay man.)
The film came out over 30 years ago, but since then the similar and superior film Carol has been released, so comparisons between the two dominate contemporary reviews of the re-release. Both films are set in the ’50s and are about an older blonde woman and a younger brunette who fall in love against the backdrop of conformist ’50s America. However, the two films’ versions of the ’50s couldn’t be more different: Carol is very much a post-war, almost noir, America, and Desert Hearts is set at the tail end of the decade when rock n’ roll has happened, the Beat generation has gone overground, etc.
Given its Reno surroundings, Desert Hearts has an element of the western thrown in. It’s very much a twist on the film The Misfits, which has Marilyn Monroe playing a divorced woman who goes to Reno and has no idea what to do with her life after her divorce. This is pretty much the same scenario as Desert Hearts, but instead of Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, you have Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) being the free-spirited love interest to Helen Shaver’s straight-laced east-coast professor, Vivian Bell. They have undeniable chemistry, and the seduction by Cay is believable and eventually quite moving.
The film is helped enormously by two additional factors: it was shot by Robert Elswit, who is one of the five or so best cinematographers in the business. He would go on to shoot most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films as well as working on the films George Clooney has directed. He certainly knows how to shoot the desert—just look at There Will Be Blood—but he obviously cut his teeth here, where he expertly shoots the desert and captures the possibilities and loneliness of the landscape. It also uses a range of rock n’ roll standards by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, etc., which intensifies the believability of Cay as a free spirit.
Desert Hearts may have been eclipsed by superior films that have covered some of the same ground over the years, but it was a daring film to come out in 1986. Director Donna Deitch has for the most part worked exclusively in TV since it came out, but she is currently mulling a sequel to Desert Hearts—however, the original ends with a sense of ambiguity that a sequel would destroy.
The disc includes interviews with the cast, director (who also supplies a commentary track), and Elswit, and includes an excerpt from a documentary on Jane Rule, who wrote the book that the film is loosely based upon. The booklet includes an essay by B. Ruby Rich.