The lesbian relationship at the core of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts is contextualized by its characters’ ideological hang-ups, whether related to region, education, or sexuality, which inform the entire spectrum of their identities. Screenwriter Natalie Cooper’s adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart begins with Vivian (Helen Shaver), a literature professor at Columbia, arriving in Reno, Nevada by train. It’s hot, it’s dry, her feet hurt, it’s 1959, and she doesn’t fit in. Met by Frances (Audra Lindley), who owns a nearby ranch, Vivian is in town to finalize a divorce. That Vivian needs to stay in Nevada for six weeks to establish residency for a divorce initially seems like a contrivance, but the setting proves to be integral to the film’s conception of the ways a place can shape a person’s desires and ambitions.
At least, that’s Frances’s suggestion, telling Vivian that the desert is “God’s backyard,” and Deitch plays into depicting the open terrain as an ambiguous factor in her characters’ lives that’s never given an absolute estimation. After all, it’s here that Vivian meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a local casino worker who initially catches Vivian’s eye as a possible means for having a social life during her stay in Reno. Cay’s invitation to go horseback riding is prefigured by the request that Vivian take off her reading glasses—a metaphorical gesture that, Cay seems to think, will bring Vivian closer to discovering her actual desires by removing her from intellectual pursuits. While Cay’s insistence could be said to implicitly question Vivian’s reluctance to embrace her surroundings, Deitch stages the pair’s interactions without favoring either perspective outright. Vivian’s trepidations are bred from her ignorance of her body, while Cay’s unsatisfying professional life derives from sharpening her mind and a fear of leaving Reno behind for good.
Deitch shoots with an eye for wide-open spaces but also configures numerous interior scenes around their Sirkian potential to reveal smaller clusters of prejudice within larger societal structures. As in All That Heaven Allows, the central lovers’ blossoming attraction is configured around the gaze and thoughts of others. For example, the snide opinion offered up at one point by Lucille (Katie La Bourdette), a friend of Frances’s, mirrors off-handed comments made toward Vivian that suggest she won’t be happy until she finds another husband. What takes place in supposedly polite conversation lights the fuse of Vivian’s psychological dynamite, which will either implode and drive her into an intense form of self-hatred, or propel her toward embracing Cay’s advances and reconsidering the scope of her passions.
That Cooper’s screenplay manages to convey this through the course of quotidian interactions that never brim over with explicit statements of oppression proves to be the film’s central triumph. The closest Desert Hearts comes to slipping into such invectives comes when Frances confronts Vivian about the relationship, and renounces her as a friend, blaming her education for affecting her ideas on love. Yet even here, the complicated social dynamics resound through Vivian’s silence, on the one hand, but also through the fact that Vivian still doesn’t have a firm grasp on her sexuality herself. It’s not until Cay and Vivian meet in a hotel room, and put the “do not disturb” sign on the door, that they achieve a meaningful sense of intimacy.
By placing these would-be lovers in various situations of revelation and concealment, Deitch asks us to consider how the very conception of cordiality and freedom, when tied to notions of place, serve to restrict individuals. It cuts both ways in Desert Hearts too. Vivian’s subsequent insistence that Cay return with her to New York is, in a more minor way, the same sort of assumed value that Frances places on Reno. As is Vivian’s statement that she plans to write a deriding short story about her trip by using the simplistic townsfolk for inspiration, because art that draws from the well of knowledge by reducing characters to caricatures turns out as flat as the Nevada desert.
Whereas Brokeback Mountain reduced its protagonists’ gay romance to the looming certainty of violence and tragedy in order to garner cheap pathos, Desert Hearts reads between the lines of desire and self-assessment to locate the liminal place where the notion of personal identity begins and ends. That such a process entails convincing the self of its value as much it does convincing others is one of the film’s central arguments. At a casino, an unnamed woman leans over to Vivian, who’s scoping out the slot machines, and says that if one doesn’t play, one doesn’t win. Take that as the mantra of Desert Hearts, which advocates risk and consciousness in tandem as the only means to overcome the cold, repressive hand of so-called normative thought.
The 4K scan on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Desert Hearts is an utter revelation. Supervised by cinematographer Robert Elswit, the transfer helps to highlight the Nevada desert as an integral piece of the entire film given how many scenes take place against the sprawling landscape. Donna Deitch’s use of color is also highlighted by the restoration, as blues and browns in particular have subtle contrasts throughout that give spatial depth to the image in ways that a lesser image quality wouldn’t be capable of. Grain remains present and image clarity is immaculate. Moreover, each frame has been substantially treated to eliminate all signs of dirt or debris. The monaural soundtrack is free of any distortion or contrast issues, though one wishes the country-music soundtrack could take full advantage of a multi-channel speaker system.
Deitch contributes to several supplements, the most notable being a 2007 audio commentary that contextualizes the film's production from inception to release. The filmmaker explains how her repeated reading of the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart eventually turned into the low-budget adaptation and production, one developed around the structure of an old-fashioned love story that would gradually reveal its romance between two women. The commentary is most engaging when Deitch explains the difficulties of making an independent film, though there are also numerous points when Deitch drops out for minutes at a time to let the a scene play out.
A new, excellent conversation between Deitch and actress Jane Lynch allows the pair a back and forth that's rare for interviews. Lynch, a self-professed obsessive fan of the film, doesn't so much ask questions as make an assertion about the film that Deitch responds to, and vice versa. Their topics cover acting, rehearsal, and shooting love scenes. In another new supplement, Deitch talks in a roundtable-style format with actresses Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau about their recollections of the production and what the film has meant to them over the last 32 years. And in yet another new supplement, Deitch speaks in the same roundtable format with Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall about their work on the film.
Excerpts from a 1994 documentary about author Jane Rule, who wrote the source novel, contextualize the Canadian writer's life and work. Finally, there's a booklet featuring an informative essay by renowned film scholar Ruby B. Rich on the film's placement within the pantheon of lesbian love stories.
This gem of '80s queer cinema receives a stellar Blu-ray treatment, with a trainload of extras to satisfy devotees and newcomers alike.