DESERT HEARTS Lands on Criterion

The 1985 indie romance will sweep you off your feet.

It’s 1959 and English professor Vivian (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno to divorce her husband. She resides at a ranch owned by Frances (Audra Lindley, Three’s Company, Cybill) and meets a young sculptor named Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). The relationship between Cay and Vivian — and Frances’s interactions with the two — is at the center of director Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts.

Cay and Vivian fall for each other amidst colorful desert vistas and smoky, crowded casinos — all captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who would go on to collaborate with Paul Thomas Anderson and film recent additions to the Mission: Impossible series. Desert Hearts is an intimate and quiet romance with slow action — except for a sequence wherein Elswit and Deitch configured a way to shoot Cay driving backwards while conversing with Frances and Vivian in their car in the opposite lane.

Charbonneau’s Cay seduces Vivian with her Natalie Wood eyes and openly flirtatious nature. Shearer as Vivian walks off the train to Reno as stiff as a poker, so brittle she just might break. “I want to be free of who I’ve been,” she tells her Nevada lawyer. In her six weeks at the ranch we see the start of her slow reinvention and self-discovery.

There’s a keen yearning between Cay and Vivian before any first moves are made. This desire — along with careful direction and support from Deitch — fills their love scenes with tenderness and awe. Outside sounds, such as planes flying overhead and church bells chiming, accompany a sensual scene in a hotel, as if to emphasize that such wonder and deep affection is possible in the real world.

Elswit’s cinematography and the production design by Jeannine Oppewall create a true sense of place, down to the last detail. Songs from the period by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and others reinforce the setting. What still seems refreshingly modern is Cay’s frankness about her sexuality. Deitch made Desert Hearts to celebrate a love between women and not punish them for it (as so many previous films tended to). This beautifully restored print, now available on Blu-ray from Criterion Collection, gives a new generation an opportunity to appreciate this seminal independent film.

Special features in this Criterion release include:

  • A conversation between director Donna Deitch and Jane Lynch about the impact made by Desert Hearts
  • Interviews with lead actresses Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau about how they came to work on the project and their experience during filming
  • A commentary track (from 2007) by director Deitch
  • A conversation led by Deitch with DP Robert Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall
  • Excerpts from a ‘90s era documentary about Canadian author Jane Rule, who wrote Desert of the Heart (includes a surprise appearance by Margaret Atwood!)
Previous post Charming Ghost Comedy TOPPER (1937) is Back Among the Living
Next post Criterion Review: JABBERWOCKY