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.