Donna Deitch always intended Desert Hearts to be not only a lesbian classic, but one of the great romances. In the commentary to the director’s 1985 adaptation of Jane Rule’s novel Desert of the Heart, Deitch explained: “It was my express purpose to make a film fashioned on an old-fashioned love story.... This was meant to be a universal love story.”
And so Desert Hearts (which will get a Criterion Collection edition this month) plays it by the book. A stranger comes to town, and there’s a meet-cute. The buttoned-down Professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) has arrived in Reno for a quickie divorce. She’s met at the highly traditional train station by Frances (Audra Lindley), the owner of the guesthouse where she’s staying. As they drive together through the desert, a car speeds by them—driving backward at fifty miles per hour, blasting rock ’n’ roll. The daredevil in the driver’s seat is Frances’s unofficial stepdaughter, Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). She instantly gets our attention, and Vivian’s.
Set in 1959, Desert Hearts is a product of late ’70s and ’80s nostalgia for the 1950s—part of the same film culture that gave us Grease, Diner, Back to the Future, and Peggy Sue Got Married. One of the film’s most fascinating features is the use of rock and country music to build a world in which there are only two human conditions: romantic fulfillment, and romantic loneliness. A full twenty percent of the independent film’s budget was spent on music rights: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go.”
But the central song for the movie’s mythology is Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon.” We first encounter this aching ballad when Frances is recalling her ten-year affair with a married man, the great love of her life: “Had a love of my own,” she reminisces—and then adds, realizing what the words remind her of, “That’s a beautiful song.” “Blue Moon” floats in the background the first time Vivian comes to Cay’s place. Until they met one another, Vivian and Cay thought that they would be forever left gazing at the lighted windows of other people’s lives. Without a dream in my heart. Without a love of my own.
I first saw Desert Hearts in 1992 or early 1993, on a date with my first girlfriend, about five years before I became a Christian. I was probably the Cay in that relationship, young and pushy and not as brash as I might have seemed. The movie’s feverish romanticism swept my teenage heart away. It’s a brilliantly made film, from the sublime shots of the hot sky and the desert (Deitch hired the film’s editor for his work on Terence Malick’s Badlands) to the perfectly stylized 1950s Western clothes and furniture. It would be a long time before I realized how thoroughly all of us live in that Desert Hearts world.
There are three love stories in Desert Hearts. There’s Vivian and Cay, of course. There’s also Cay’s brassy coworker Silver and her fiancé Joe. And, only in memory, Frances and her married lover Glen. All three of these stories are told with an almost aggressive sweetness. Vivian and Cay walk along a lake at sunset and kiss in the rain. Silver and Joe shine with their happiness, and their relief at having found one another. And Frances offers one of the movie’s two definitions of love: “He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart.”