One of the most famous and acclaimed books of lesbianism written by Jane Rule, entitled Desert of the Heart, was adapted to screen in 1985 by Donna Deitch (Director) and Natalie Cooper (Writter).We are in the late 50s and a woman arrives in Nevada to settle some matters about her life, she's Vivian Bell,
a professor getting a divorce. She's unsatisfied with her married life and seems to be empty, unhappy. Not only she's unsatisfied with her life but she also feels out of place at the ranch she stays in, despite the pleasant welcoming. She meets Cay Rivers, who we realise later has different orientations from the majority of the population, being an open and self assured lesbian, at least from the time was cleary open, and she's the ranchowner's step daughter. Vivian finds herseld increasingly drawn to her.
The emotions start to develop between this two different characters. Despite their mutul interests or moments in life, not only Vivian is ten years older than Cay but they have many forces against each other, and compromise seems impossible, Vivian is a college Professor and an aspiring novelist, she's tightly controlled and elegant. Cay is a free spirited sculptor, she's bold, doesn't care of what others think of her.
It's clear that a romance is established. As this romance develops we can see many typical responses, not only from one another but from the people around them, in ranch.
In a relationship, speacially in this case, there is one side mush stronger than the other that doesn't accept what he's feeling, in this case Vivian is the one acting that way, "I don't know where that came from. It's back where it belongs, and I don't want to talk about it anymore." after she kisses Cay back; people's response to Cay in town are typical too, including her adopted mother Frances, like she's 'a bad influence' response. When Vivian and Cay arrive together after being alone for several hours Frances thinks Vivian as seduced Cay and in an unaccepting and yet jealous way she sends her away from her ranch.
Vivian stays in a hotel for the rest of her stay; we realise soon they miss each other. Cay seems to be the strongest one because she takes the step forwarad, visits Vivien in her hotel room and overcomes Vivien's resistence to be with her and they begin an affair.Once again we see many typical reactions in this situation, on Vivien's side, saying things like "I wouldn't know what to do" or "I don't usually feel this way at 11 o'clock in the morning" or "I never felt this way before".
This film sex scenes are described as very historical, because it was a period of time when things like this where very challenging speacially for the risk they would have to take, not only artistically, but in terms of 'career' and feedback and one of the many forward steps that the movie industry had to take in.
Desert Hearts was also historical speacially because it must have been, at that time, the most honest and truthfull lesbian affair that doesn't ended tragically.
It's a romantic and sensitive film. To mention the typical responses and reactions in the story I wanted to say they are also important for the film because it was what people wanted to see and hear (speacially women who shared this same feelings).
Through a reasonable knowledge of Lesbian Themed films many of them can't really seem to work, they are either misinterpreted, unsatisfying or lacking deep substance in the story. As we enter Twenty First Century they got even worse. "The Kids are All Right" seems to be an expection that hopefully can inspire to some reasonable future work, so, I believe "Desert Hearts" to be one of the most accomplished films (apart from the perfect expection of "The Kids Are All Right", that is).
The story is beautiful and pleasant, a drama wrapped in the beautiful land from Nevada, there's obvisouly some flaws, some lack of action, some stiff dialogues, we don't really have to take in sentences like "He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart." (I rather prefer things like "(Vivian): Can I be honest with you, Frances? (Frances): It's a dyin' art, so be my guest."!) or the horrific windows transitions, but it's a film that grows in you gradually.Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver are convincing enough, they are very attractive and elegant.
At the end they struggle to find a solution to their situation and with an unclear ending we can only hope the better for the couple.