The legacy of ‘Desert Hearts’

By Farihah Zaman
special to

At the mere mention of “Desert Hearts,” admirers of the film are liable to clutch their chests and instantly light up, eager for a moment
 of connection over Donna Deitch’s groundbreaking yet underseen 1986 romance. This is rather appropriate for a movie that itself so deftly portrays the need for connection, the search for “someone that counts,” in the words of one of its leading ladies, Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a reckless twentysomething sculptor with only the vaguest of ambitions and no idea where to direct them. The other lead, the professor Vivian (Helen Shaver), is a somewhat older and more guarded woman who is perhaps more self-assured than Cay but also less self-aware, successful in work but ignorant of her own desires. This deceptively simple good-girl-meets-bad-girl story might have made it all too easy for the film to fall into the trap of lowest-common- denominator melodrama or, worse, sensationalist same-sex- relationship stereotyping. Instead, Deitch’s astonishingly beautiful first and only narrative feature is a study in nuance, one that courses with raw emotions beneath its measured surface.

“Desert Hearts” is a seminal work of American independent cinema, and its particular significance to the queer, and especially lesbian, film canon cannot be overstated. And it is a measure of just how path-breaking the film was that, more than thirty years after its release, movies that depict queerness as a meaningful but not all-consuming aspect of characters’ lives continue to feel revolutionary. Deitch’s film is an indisputable forerunner of recent critically lauded depictions of same-sex love like Carol and Moonlight—films that also defiantly use the cinematic language of epic drama despite the perceived “otherness” of their protagonists. Furthermore, there is the fact that Deitch was a lesbian woman given the all-too-rare opportunity to tell the story of women who share her desires. In a moment of extreme minority marginalization in public sentiment and concrete legislation alike, representation in front of and behind the camera is obviously crucial to stemming a dangerous backslide toward reductive, if not outright bigoted, perceptions of queer relationships. In this case, Deitch’s identity is likely one of the reasons for her film’s enduring complexity, its particular combination of the achingly romantic and the ferociously subversive.

In fact, “Desert Hearts” has a general spirit of rebellion, beyond its depiction of queerness, that perfectly suits its reimagining of the western genre. Deitch has said that the film’s central theme is risk, the emotional vulnerability required to give in to a romantic relationship, with the casino Cay works in acting as a clear metaphor. But the film is also about women looking for fulfillment— each in her own way—with romantic love presented as only part of that potential fulfillment. Although Cay and Vivian’s relationship seems inevitable, the film never suggests that in each other’s arms they have reached the end of their respective journeys, as is often the case for female characters of all sexual orientations. Vivian still feels compelled to leave Reno once her quickie divorce is finalized, and while it seems as though Cay will join her (at least for one more train stop … and then, who can say?), this decision appears to be as much about her finding the strength to leave her small-town support system—again, learning to gamble in order to open herself up to life’s many possibilities—as it is about following the woman who has given her the courage to do so.

There is also a refreshingly open approach to identity and relationships throughout the film, not just in its handling of lesbian love. For one thing, the word “lesbian” is never uttered, leading the viewer to the conclusion—which today seems rather contemporary—that Vivian’s attraction to Cay does not automatically define her as gay. While Cay appears to be exclusively interested in other women, she also doesn’t feel the need to label herself. Of a brief affair with a male colleague who still holds a torch for her, she says, “I allowed myself to get attracted to his attraction to me”—a frank yet elegant way of expressing that matters of sexual identity and the rules of attraction are rarely cut-and-dried.

“Desert Hearts,” then, pulses with a sense of possibility, a sense that the boundaries that traditionally define relationships have been gently pushed away, a feeling further reinforced by the wide-open expanses—the mountains, lakes, and desert—of the film’s natural backdrop. After all, Deitch has discovered here the people and stories that have often been relegated to the background themselves. With women driving the narrative, having ownership over their lives, and appearing in nearly every scene, the Wild West, typically one giant sandpit of a boys’ club, has been reclaimed for them.

Here, the patron saint of broken hearts is Patsy Cline , not Hank Williams. Here, the lone figure seen forging a path on the dusty trail is a woman trying to find herself, not a cowboy in search of
a wife. Here, there is room for all manner of defiant, inexplicable, unclassifiable loves, led on into the desert of promise by the pioneer Donna Deitch.

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