Catching Up: Desert Hearts (1986)

Desert Hearts (1986)

LGBT cinema has come a long way in the last few years.  Early notable cinema either displayed queer individuals as villains or as desperate, ultimately doomed characters. Recent films such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Todd Haynes’ Carol, and God’s Own Country have taken the death and destruction out of the lives of their characters and have developed human stories about the relationships, loves, and losses of same-sex romance.  One of the earliest examples of the shifting cinema comes from 1986’s Desert Hearts–recently released on the Criterion Collection–displaying heartfelt storytelling, even if the dramatic elements are rather dated.


In Donna Deitch’s film, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a Columbia University professor recently separated from her husband, relocates to 1959 Reno to discover her new path.  Vivian develops feelings for Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), the vivacious pseudo-daughter of Frances (Audra Lindley), her host at a ranch outside of town. Though quick to jump to melodrama out of nowhere, the film is biting in its view of the treatment of women.  Filled with scenes dismaying Vivian’s search for independence, she faces sexism left and right.


Acknowledged for her youth as a professor by Frances’ son, she replies “I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, but thank you Walter”: Decorum as necessity. Vivian avoids confrontation when clearly spoken down to.  In a few painful interactions with her divorce lawyer, a man that is just a mess of misogyny, Vivian swallows his thorny bites, disguising her bitterness with a pursed smile.


The film holds up with Helen Shaver’s lead performance.  So controlled in her demeanor, Vivian appears to live more for the perception of others than for herself.  She is much less bawdy than Cay. As Vivian pulls away from their first sexual interaction, Cay retorts, “We don’t have to stop,” and uneasy Vivian responds “I do”.  She is hardy able to resolve her feelings; something crushing for a woman so assured in her professional life. The film is dated by modern standards but was surely revolutionary and enlightening 30 years ago.  The steps taken to evolve queer cinema have been long coming, and Desert Hearts shows early promise of our stories leaping out of the celluloid closet


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