Made for only $350,000 in 1985 when no one wanted to fund or star in a movie about lesbians, Desert Hearts is widely considered the first full-length lesbian love story, and its success paved the way for the proliferation of lesbian films we enjoy today.
Directed by Donna Deitch and set in 1950's Reno, Nevada, Desert Hearts tells the story of a 35-year-old uptight female professor Vivian (Helen Shaver) who comes to town to file for divorce and ends up falling in love with a free-spirited 25-year-old casino worker Cay (Patricia Charbonneau).
Although Vivian left her husband because she had "drowned in still waters," she is not quite prepared for the tidal wave-effect Cay has on her life. As Vivian herself admits, her life is all about "order," and her image of herself as a scholar and a professional, upstanding woman does not include a relationship with a woman. Cay, meanwhile, is living at home with her stepmother, Frances (Audra Lindley) while she waits to meet someone who "counts" — and she almost immediately recognizes that Vivian is that someone.
Both women struggle with conflicting desires and a sense of obligation to others, and are ultimately drawn together not just because of their attraction to each other, but because each woman offers the other something she has been unable to find on her own.
Shaver is excellent as the tense, repressed Vivian trying to come to terms with her attraction to Cay and all that it implies, and Charbonneau's Cay is magnetic, fairly leaping off the screen in places (especially impressive considering this was Charbonneau's first role). The chemistry between Cay and Vivian builds slowly but powerfully, and the ending is satisfying without being unrealistic.
Lindley as Cay's stepmother is also superb as a lonely woman caught between wanting her step-daughter to be happy, and being afraid to lose her.
The film moves at a slow but steady pace and its frequent reliance on silence to communicate more than words is a welcome contrast to the tendency of most movies today to rush to fill every moment with sound of some sort. Desert Hearts does include music from classic singers like Patsy Cline that wonderfully reinforce the feel of the film, but it uses them judiciously, as enhancement instead of filler.
"Sparing" is perhaps the word that best describes the film overall, because when the characters speak, we listen. The dialogue is clunky and corny in some places — exemplified by the line "she just reached in and put a string of lights around my heart" — but in other places it resonates strongly, such as when Cay explains her brief fling with her (male) boss at the Casino with the comment, "I allowed myself to get attracted to his attraction to me."
Even the occasional insults are brilliantly understated, as in this exchange between Vivian and another guest at the ranch:
LUCILLE: Did you know that [Cay] was kicked out of college for "unnatural acts," as they say?
VIVIAN: Shall I raise my eyebrows and gasp?
LUCILLE: Well, I'm definitely out to lunch when it comes to queers. Aren't you?
VIVIAN: I don't think either of us will be sorely missed, Lucille.
LUCILLE: Well, nobody said it didn't take all kinds, Vivian.
VIVIAN: And you're certainly making a unique contribution.
The film is also a little too slow in a few places — some of the scenes of Vivian alone in her room thinking seem to drag on especially long. Deitch appears to be trying to emphasize Vivian's emotional turmoil with these scenes, and while the film in general is very good at conveying this, it could have achieved the same result with a little more editing here.
But overall, Desert Hearts is just as interesting and compelling as it was almost twenty years earlier when it won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1986, and serves as an example of the heights you can achieve without a big budget if you have strong actors, the right story, and a director who knows how to pull it all together.