Desert Hearts

Director: Donna Deitch
1985 | USA | 96m
GENRE: Drama | Lesbian | Local Interest/Subjects | Relationships | Romance | Sexuality
SECTION: Retrospective
Expected Guests: Director, Donna Deitch

Get out your western wear and time-travel back to 1985, when this unabashed big-screen lesbian romance made its landmark debut. Sure, a few star-crossed lesbian vampires and sad divorcées had been featured in mainstream movies before Desert Hearts, but when Donna Deitch adapted Jane Rule’s novel and put lesbian passion on explicit display, she made lesbian cinema history. Finally, the sisters were making movies for themselves.

It’s 1959 when uptight eastern academic Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) heads west to Reno for a divorce and meets free-spirited sculptor Cay (the radiant Patricia Charbonneau) at a ranch for divorcées straight out of The Women. Despite warnings from a fellow guest about Cay’s reputation for “unnatural acts,” Vivian strikes up a friendship with the younger woman and begins to loosen up. Soon Cay is in frank pursuit of the professor, beginning her seduction with a kiss in the rain, and following it up with some practical sex advice for beginning lesbians: “You can start by putting the do-not-disturb sign on your door.” Seduction, quarrels, reconciliation, familial homophobia — this film is the grandma of celluloid lesbian romance, and it set the pattern for a slew of subsequent films.

Deitch pulled off a big-budget look for her period piece, and the leads are backed by a solid cast of supporting players (look for a young Jeffrey Tambor in a bit role). With a backdrop of gorgeous desert landscapes and Patsy Cline on the soundtrack, Desert Hearts is pure escapist pleasure.

Digital restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Criterion Collection/Janus Films in conjunction with the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and the Sundance Institute.

— MONICA NOLAN

CO-PRESENTED BY
Bay Area Women In Film And Media