Desert Hearts is a film which changed the history of Queer film making. Made at a time when American independent films were still so few, helmed by a woman was also such a rarity let alone bringing a story about Lesbians to the big screen.
Thirty-three years after it’s release, Desert Hearts is to be screened at this years’ Melbourne Queer Film Festival as part of their film retrospectives.
The story of 35 year old Vivian Bell who desires to escape a marriage, that, as she says to her divorce lawyer, was “ big on form, with the right friends, the right prints on the wall”.
In 1959 America, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) has to travel to Reno, Nevada and live for six weeks as is the process for divorce American style mid 20th century, pre JFK era. Vivian takes up residency at a ranch run by Frances Parker (Audry Lindley) an ageing matriarch who does not take kindly to the English professor from New York’s prestigious Columbia University, taking an interest in her surrogate daughter Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau).
Helen Shaver plays Vivian with such a tight prudishness, she’s a woman who does “yearn for something we couldn’t analyse or reason away” as she tries to explain her failed marriage. Falling in love with a woman ten years younger than herself is not in her plans, will she deny herself a chance of happiness with the tomboyish and bold Cay?
Social critic and feminist academic Camille Paglia in her book Sexual Personae, describes ‘Cay’ as the “closest thing I have ever seen to Shakespeare’s Rosalind…a spirited performance as a coltish Reno cowgirl”. It is true Cay is a character that just glows with positivity like the neon signs at the casino where she works, shiny and magnetic, seducing the viewer so easily, totally irresistible.
After all is said and done Deitch’s film of Sapphic love, Pulp style (turning even that generic on its head), is an amazing love story, set in the big open blue skies and spaces of Nevada like a John Ford , but with neon signs and casinos, Chevy cars and Patsy Cline songs, this is a film with a 1980s daring on a shoe string. It dares to express Lesbian love with no hetero or bi sex triangles. It still makes the heart race thirty plus years later with intimate scenes that were naked and real, that like Vivian will leave you trembling and gasping, for more.