I never wanted Desert Hearts to end. I didn’t want to leave behind the breathtaking scenery of the desert and I definitely wanted to see more of the chemistry between the two leads. Desert Hearts is an intimate yet flawless gem that captures forbidden love that is apolitical yet groundbreaking during its time of release because it was the first film about a same-sex relationship between two women that isn’t tragic. While LGBTQ+ films that have a political agenda are meant to be told, Desert Hearts is proof that those aren’t the only stories that should be told.
Based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, Desert Hearts follows the story of a woman named Vivian (Helen Shaver) who travels to Reno, Nevada to get divorced. She stays at a guest ranch with other women who are also waiting to get divorced. There, she meets the younger, free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). As Cay begins to fall for Vivian that makes things complicated since Vivian realizes she harbors the same feelings yet has trouble acting on them because she fears for her reputation.
The two main actresses have intoxicating chemistry and are the main reason the film works so incredibly well. Helen Shaver gives a textured performance as Vivian, a woman who dresses all posh and proper which contradicts her hidden sensual free spirit. Equally as impressive is Patricia Charbonneau as Cay, a woman who fools everyone into thinking she’s fearless and is ready for whatever the world throws at her. But as it turns out, she’s unsure where her life’s direction will go.
Credit should also go to director Donna Deitch and cinematographer Robert Elswit who use semi-long takes that focus on the expressive faces of the two actresses, allowing them to peel off the layers of their characters even if they don’t use verbal dialogue to do so. Whether the camera captures Vivian and Cay having a silent argument in the rain or Cay staring at Vivian with loving eyes, it proves to be an essential tool to the film’s poetic nature.
Despite the film being apolitical and unsentimental, the special features on the Blu-ray go deep into the politics and controversy behind it. One feature includes the two excerpts from the documentary Fiction And Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule with Rule talking about the hate mail she received for publishing the novel the film is based on. There’s also a conversation between Jane Lynch and director Donna Deitch. Lynch talks about why the film spoke to her so greatly and how both its timelessness and demonstration of earnest love should resonate with those in the LGBTQ+ community who are afraid of coming out of the closet.
Its depiction of same-sex love in a positive manner and its timeless quality along with the flawless leading performances are what make Desert Hearts an unsung classic. Whether or not it is mentioned when people bring up what they think are the best films in queer cinema, Desert Hearts is still a gem for the history books and a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection.