“Desert Hearts” Brings Out the Vulnerability (and Heat) in Lesbian Romance


“You’re just visiting the way I live,” confidently queer Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) cries out to newly lesberated Vivian (Helen Shaver) during their first romantic set-to in Donna Deitch’s swoony and sharp-witted Desert Hearts. The same can’t be said of Deitch’s 1985 film, her first, which became a sapphic touchstone precisely by not treating lesbian love as a topic for tourism (as Personal Best did in ’82) or something far worse (cf. The Children’s Hour, from ’61, among scores of examples). Adapted from Desert of the Heart, the 1964 debut novel by lavender legend Jane Rule, and scripted by Natalie Cooper, Deitch’s movie takes place in Reno, Nevada, in 1959. Vivian, a 35-year-old literature professor at Columbia, has headed to the city for a quickie divorce from a fellow academic. (“It drowned in still waters,” she says of her passionless marriage.) The scholar — fragile, remote, wry, serious — ignites something in Cay, a coltish soft butch a decade younger who sculpts when she’s not working as a change operator at the casino. However self-assured, and no matter how many women may have shared her bed previously, Cay is also nakedly vulnerable around this soigné New Yorker. She is, in other words, falling in love, a condition never pathologized or diminished in Deitch’s film but rather celebrated to the fullest. A hotel-room seduction scene emanates as much erotic heat as the one in Carol, and the open-ended conclusion immediately calls to mind the great come-on uttered by sex-drunk Rita to Betty in Mulholland Drive: Go with me somewhere.

Desert Hearts
Directed by Donna Deitch
Janus Films
Opens July 19, IFC Center