By Andrea Thompson
Few things are more satisfying than a groundbreaking film that's actually good. And in 1985, lesbians were doing the Western romance way before “Brokeback Mountain.” So if you haven't heard of the 1985 film “Desert Hearts,” get familiar.
“Desert Hearts” isn't just groundbreaking because it's a lesbian love story that's written and directed by women. There's more to it than that, as director Donna Deitch is also a lesbian, so we're also seeing a queer love story as told through a queer female gaze, which helps explain why the love scene is sensual and appreciative rather than leering or objectifying.
Many films also love to claim they're subversive, but such claims are genuine in this case. “Desert Hearts” kicks off when 35-year-old New York academic Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) comes to Reno, Nevada in 1959 for some peace and quiet during her divorce. As she explains to her lawyer, there was nothing really wrong with her marriage. Her husband was good to her, and they had a good life together. It just wasn't the life she wanted, which is an honest one that doesn't depend on having the right friends and the right prints on the wall.
“I yearn for something you couldn't analyze or reason away,” Vivian explains. “I want to be free of who I've been.” She accepts that this might mean she's alone for the rest of her life.
Or not. Enter the 25-year-old free-spirited Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), who feels like a force of nature from the moment she appears on-screen, laughingly, recklessly driving backward to greet Vivian as she's arriving at the ranch where Cay is also staying. Vivian is immediately interested, if not quite consciously at first. From the first time the two actually meet and chat, the chemistry is off the charts. Blue really is the warmest color the way Charbonneau rocks that crop top and jean shorts. It's bodice ripper level of swoonworthy.
The setting for their slowly building romance also soon proves to be far more complicated than your typical repressive small town. Cay is pretty open about her numerous affairs with women, which her surrogate mother and ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley) tolerates while simultaneously turning a blind eye to. She also has a true friend in Silver, an older woman who works with Cay, and who's happily engaged to a man, but also has a tenderly physical relationship Cay as well.
“Joe's in the kitchen, you're in the tub,” Silver sighs to Cay. “Jesus, I'm happy.” Unconventional to be sure, but it becomes one of the film's more beautiful portrayals, not only of love, but of female friendships, with Joe (Antony Ponzini) accepting of them both and unconditionally loving towards Silver. Silver is also the only one who seems to have Cay's best interests at heart, and offers her advice that is actually geared towards her betterment.
Cay does seem to have all the freedom in the world...until she finds that “somebody who counts,” as she puts it. As her and Vivian's connection grows, so too does the opposition to it. Frances kicks Vivian out of the house, but then, she might have done that with any connection Cay formed. Her lack of acceptance is also ironically born out of a deep need for Cay's love and presence. She was the mistress of Cay's father for ten years, even taking Cay in after her mother left her, and Frances desperately wants to keep Cay close to her.
It's indicative of Deitch's refusal to allow either women to be defined by the reactions of the straight women around then, and it's most likely why reactions to their tender love story were mixed. There are few things straight white men dislike more than such complete and utter dismissals of their perceptions and opinions. Deitch even had a difficult time finding actresses to audition, since fear of playing LGBTQ material was at an all-time high, especially when the script didn't involve suicide, heartbreak, or a love triangle with a man.
It is also the older, prim and proper Vivian (who actually wears a string of pearls) who is seduced by Cay, slowly and tenderly in the gorgeous desert landscape. I'm no fan of small towns, having hated the one I grew up in. But they do lend themselves to a kind of poetry onscreen, which makes certain one-liners sound wise rather than laughable, such as when Vivian tells Cay her marriage “drowned in still waters,” and Cay replies, “Say no more.” Even the country music is used to great effect. As Silver sings a love song and the two eye each other up, the heat they generate radiates off the screen.
The best, most enjoyable exchange between the two actually happens right before their love scene, where Vivian is explaining to Cay what a respected scholar she is, and how fond she is of order and how unused she is to raising her voice, only to turn around and see Cay naked in her bed. “I wouldn't know what to do,” Vivian protests. Cay replies, “You can start by putting the do not disturb sign on the door.”
What happens after, when the two women leave the hotel room and spend time in the outside world, is difficult to watch. It's clear they love each other, partially because they both tell each other, and that Cay's feelings for Vivian make this a new experience for her too. Vivian is unused to having to defend herself and her relationship against the world, and feels exposed just sitting in a restaurant with Kay, resulting in their first fight. In another film, this is where they would part ways, and “Desert Hearts” would end in either a terrible accident or their declaration to love each other regardless of what the outside world thinks. When they do risk parting, it has nothing to do with any outside opinion, which must have set so many critical teeth on edge.
When the real suspense comes is when Vivian has to return to New York, and Cay's real insecurities swim to the surface. Vivian wants Cay to come with her and really commit to a new life, even if it may not work out. “If you want a sure thing, stay in Reno,” she tells Cay, who is hesitant to leave the comfortable world she knows. “Desert Hearts” likewise gives us no guarantees, only a glimpse of what could be a happy ending when Cay jumps on Vivian's train at the last minute, at least deciding to give Vivian another forty minutes to the next station. I can only hope she decided to take the ride for as long as it lasted.