“My only clear memory is arriving. The rest is a blur. An absolute blur.”
It’s 1985: The push for gay rights feels stagnant. Aids is still “the gay plague,” ignored by the Reagan administration and taken seriously only in pockets of the U.S.. Slurs are commonplace, sexual education is limited, and, needless to say, it’s a difficult time to come out. It’s in this year that Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch, 1985) is released – a criminally underseen American romance that deserves recognition for its craft, performances, tenderness, and defiance during a time of immense, sweeping homophobia.
The backdrop is Reno, Nevada, circa 1959: moments of silence on a dusty railroad are taken over by the distant squealing of tracks. A train saunters into the frame, crawling to a stop. Vivian (played by Helen Shaver) carefully steps off to see Frances (Audra Lindley), an older woman with a Southern charm, despite living in the Northwest. She’s arrived here to establish residency – after six weeks, this move will make her divorce swift. The distance, in theory, makes it less painful.
They set off in a truck to Frances’ guest ranch, where Vivian is staying before she finalizes the split. On the ride there, a dot forms on the desert horizon further down the road: a car speeds down the opposite side of the highway and jolts at their side, switching to reverse. Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) drives alongside them, backwards, shouting niceties at Frances and taking a welcome note of Vivian.
Vivian’s presentation and personality are a stark contrast to her new surroundings. She’s an English professor from the New York North – her demeanor is suited, her attitude tact and proper. Straight-laced and decidedly straight. Throughout her time on the ranch, she doesn’t shy away from letting the emotional weight of her marital affairs be known. Still, she refuses to be vulnerable.
On the other hand, Cay wears her heart on her sleeve; she projects herself the way she likes, sleeps with whoever she wants (men, women, and swingers alike), and says what she means. She recognizes the loneliness in Vivian and becomes fixated on the idea of seducing her. The relationship between the two blossoms as they grow closer together, through cracked smiles and whip-smart dialogue (“I won’t take off my robe.” “Well, we all have to draw the line somewhere.“)
The chemistry on display here is intoxicating. Whenever Vivian lets go and loses herself in Cay, it’s mind-melting. It’s like the film freezes and they’re each left entirely alone – individualized, seen through each other. It’s so cathartic that it feels like voyeurism.
This becomes the place – in each other’s arms, away from their surroundings (though Cay would be much more content if they acted outwardly and held it on their sleeves). The two continue to meet. Frances inevitably catches wind of their relationship: “You people,” “sinning,” and “never understand it” are thrown around willingly, and Vivian’s time on the ranch, along with her relationship to Cay, is put in jeopardy. Cue the rest of the film.
While watching, it becomes apparent that there isn’t much support in their surroundings. The men are a negative presence entirely. Every man we encounter feels like an obstacle – the closest we get to a positive contribution is one half of a couple that Cay has sex with, who, bare minimum, genuinely listens to what the two have to say after asking about their lives. Otherwise, they leer, judge, and treat the two like objects. None have good intent in their interactions; they all assume that they exist for them.
Later on in the film, Vivian walks up to a gambling table at the casino where Cay works. Immediately, she’s pulled in by a wealthy, stump-nosed man who wants to “teach her the game.” She wins; he tries to congratulate her with a kiss. Cay, while tending the slot machines, is grabbed at, touched, and catcalled. At home, Vivian is pursued unconsentingly in her own room by Frances’ son. The family she stays with is judgmental and openly critical. Support is only found in smaller spaces from other women.
In the Casino locker rooms, Cay and her best friend Silver (Andra Akers) recount the long work days and make a point to check in with each other. Solace, still, is limited – the two work under the thumb of a male manager who constantly ogles his femme coworkers and continuously pursues Cay. Wherever they go, they’re bothered. Their existence and expectations are held to heteronormativity. Their only escape is in private. The relationship that forms between Vivian and Cay feels genuinely defiant and sacred.
This is an intimate story of love painted across rolling, dusty hills and pink sunsets, driven by a need for self-discovery. A film emblematic of both its time and now, Desert Hearts showcases the difficulty of projecting oneself openly and acting as you are in a heteronormative environment. The complexity and tenderness of its characters are served graciously through the film’s meditative pace and the curated words that Cay and Vivian share with one another. It’s bonkers how well everything works together and how such complexity is found in something that, on paper, is straightforward.
The context of its release as an explicitly queer narrative emboldens what is already a fantastic film. Desert Hearts is a dream worth your time – and if the rawness of its romance isn’t enough, the smiles, timelessness, and sparse Nevadian scenery absolutely will be.