Film Queer

Sapphic Cinema: Desert Hearts

(This review was originally published on August 7, 2015.)

So far in this column, we’ve had a lot of fun ribbing the lesbian film genre, and don’t worry, we’re still going to do a lot of that (I’m coming for you, Elena Undone). But it’s also important to remember that among the movies we love in spite of everything, there are a few movies we can just love. One of those movies is 1985’s Desert Hearts. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch; it’s not showy or even particularly ambitious beyond its goal of truthfully depicting two people falling in love.  But it does that so well that we may pass it down to the young ones with pride.

Desert Hearts takes place in 1950s Reno, where RESPECTED SCHOLAR Vivian Bell has come to get a quickie divorce.  Helen Shaver (who is an icon and a genius and whose oeuvre is a gift to our community) undergoes a remarkable transformation over the course of the film, but at the start she is so tightly wound you worry she will explode into little bits of clockwork. 

She moves with the care of a much older woman, mixed with a classic Hollywood grace. She is fiercely intelligent, a heavy bourbon drinker, and the height of her waistline compares favorably with Betty McRae’s. She is exactly the type of thirty-five year-old everyone should fall in love with when they are twenty-five. So of course, enter the temptress: Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). A part-time casino worker/part-time sculptor/full-time lothario, we first meet Cay driving backwards down a highway at full speed.


In researching this piece, I came across some interesting information about the production, which I need to quote to you from Wikipedia.

“Author and lesbian literary critic Camile Paglia praised the movie for its riveting performances, having seen it 11 times in theaters. She claims that Patricia Charbonneau’s “magic” comes from hormonal glow, as she had found out she was pregnant before shooting began, and was sick on the set. In her landmark work Sexual Personae, Paglia said the lanky, spirited, mercurial Charbonneau would have made a perfect transvestite Rosalind in Shakespeare‘s As You Like It.[9]

Like everything Camille Paglia says, all of that is hilarious and wrong.

Anyways, Vivian stays at a ranch which caters exclusively to women seeking to leave their loveless marriages. Cay also lives there, both because her stepmom, Frances, is the proprietor, and because it is a prime location for picking up divorcees ready to have all the orgasms their husbands never gave them.

As much as I love the romance at the center of this film, the background characters are all richly developed and full of life.  Like Silver, the country-western singer who is almost too afraid to be happy. Silver I love you, even though it’s kind of weird how you kiss Cay on the mouth and take bubble baths with her.


Or what about Frances herself, the (mostly) functional alcoholic who runs the ranch and whose own feelings for Cay are a weird mix of motherly and “projecting all the feelings I had for your dead father onto you.” (Come to think of it, every character in this movie is at least a little in love with Cay.) Frances is a rare cinematic example of a humanized homophobe. She’s not a caricature or a broadside; she’s recognizable as the people in our lives who swear they really do love us while hating what we do. 

And what Cay does is fall in love with Vivian like a rocketship pointed straight at the moon.  The movie is kind of a slow-burner, but it still only takes the standard three interactions for full-fledged Feelings to develop. (Then again, real life lesbians have been known to fall in love via the intercom at the bank, so who am I to judge?) 

They go on the requisite Reno dates of gambling, shopping for western wear, and horseback riding. However, I do wish they spent more time outside. If I have one beef with this movie it’s that it doesn’t make enough use of the scenery, and how spiritually liberating those wide-open desert skies can be.

And then, during an improbable desert rainstorm, Cay leans through the window of her car and kisses Vivian A LOT.

Some questions about this:

1. Cay, why don’t you get in the car?

2. Do you know that there is a door to that car you can open? It seems like you would know, but maybe not?

3. Is this a metaphor of some kind? Because I don’t like it when metaphors get on my kissing.

Either terrified by her burgeoning attraction or perplexed by Cay’s makeout technique, Vivian demands to be returned to the ranch. Upon arrival, she is promptly kicked out by Frances, who is put off by the gay thing/wants Cay all to herself.

But not to worry.  In classic lesbian film tradition, Cay follows Vivian to her hotel.


And it is there that they have the greatest sex any two people have ever known in the state of Nevada.


One of the great things about this scene is it shows a seduction in which we never need to feel icky about consent. Because Vivian needs a little persuading. Like, yes she invited the universe to give her a passion she couldn’t intellectualize, but this is taking it a little too far.  It’s still 1959, and she is still A RESPECTED SCHOLAR. But Cay, with the clear-eyed certainty of a twenty-five year old, calmly disrobes and climbs into Vivian’s bed. So Vivian is like “I want you to leave” and Cay is like “No, you don’t.” It’s not pushy or aggressive, and it doesn’t have that gross “convert the straight girl” feel about it. If anything, it reminds me of Emily Fitch asking Naomi Campbell to be brave and want her back.

And the payoff is divine.  According to that same Wikipedia entry, The L Word cast members had to watch this scene as part of their prep work for the lesbian sex scenes. Frankly, I think more filmmakers should follow suit, because it finds that sweet spot of being beautiful without being polite.  They’re not ravenous animals, but neither are they blushing schoolgirls who can barely stop giggling long enough to do the damn thing.

And more generally, it’s remarkable how much the film gets right given when it was made.  Vivian is afraid of the world’s judgment, but she’s also brave in seeking out truths that transcend logic, in respecting people less intellectual than herself, and in calling the unworthy out on their bullshit.  (Best homophobic shut-down of all time: “Nobody said it didn’t take all kinds, Vivian.” “Yes, and you’re certainly making a unique contribution.”)

In the end, despite the differences in their ages and temperaments, Vivian accepts her love for Cay with the same quiet grace she accepted the radical notion that her marriage was pointless.  And she talks that young cowgirl on a train to New York.

Despite the fact that Desert Heart’s ending in nearly identical to When Night Is Falling, Cay and Vivian’s chances as a couple seem infinitely better than Camille and Petra’s.  They don’t just want each other, they like and challenge one another. I always imagine them going to New York and renting apartments a block from one another (they both need space for their work) but still sleeping together almost every night.

As I said before, Desert Hearts is a small film of limited aspirations. But it is remarkable not just for what it is but for what it did.  Like the stubborn desert plants from which it draws it central metaphor, it stands out because it stands alone. We know how many filmmakers have cited its influence, but we may never know how many queer women took nourishment from it.  How many women found themselves in these characters? How many women took this as proof that there was hope? How many women, god help us, thought that they too could pull off western wear? 


We live in a time where we take queer representation for granted: where a happy ending or a steamy love scene is only a click away.  But in 1985 it really was a desert out there. 

According to whoever wrote that Wikipedia article (WAS IT YOU, CAMILE PAGLIA?) Donna Deitch sold her house to raise the money for this film. That’s the kind of courage that not only makes great art, it makes great change.  Someone please give her a big thank you from all of us.

The Breakdown

Sex Scenes: One, but it kind of bleeds into another one and becomes two?

Sex Scene Quality: Without parallel.

Musical Numbers: One glorious rendition of Silver’s original song. You get it, Silver.  You totally deserve happiness.

How Many Times Have You Watched It, Elaine?: Like, the whole movie or the best-of scenes?  Because five, and eight thousand, respectively.

Is It On Netflix: Yes! Go watch it!

(If the restoration of these articles has added something to your life, please consider a small donation to yours truly. I’m @Elaine-Atwell on Venmo!)

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