Desert Hearts

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Lesbian love burns bright under desert skies

Image of Desert Hearts

Donna Deitch / US / 1985 / 93 minutes

Available on Blu-ray now.

These days “gay movies” raise few disapproving eyebrows. From Carol to Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name to Princess Cyd they are pretty much part of the mainstream. It wasn’t always thus. Before New Queer Cinema, before the groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain (which brought gay sex to the multiplex) there were so few movies that had LGBT themes that any crumb of comfort was hoovered up by gay audiences. Gay movies were important because they were just so few of them.

In the permissive 1960s, films with homosexual characters appeared but homophobia was endemic. Hateful stuff like The Fox and The Children’s Hour ended with unsatisfactory and unconvincing bisexual triangles or suicide at the end of a rope. Where were the authentic gay stories?

For decades in the US a quickie divorce could be obtained in Nevada after a six-week residency qualification was met – movies like The Women and The Misfits used this trope. Based on June Rule’s 1964 novel, the low-budget indie Desert Hearts is set in America’s divorce city of Reno in 1959. There’s lots of old Chevys and a resonant country soundtrack.

English professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) from New York has made the trek west to escape her 12-year marriage which has “drowned in still waters”. It soon turns into a real journey of desire and discovery. She checks into a rented room in a ranch run by the rancorous Frances (Audra Lindley) and her twentysomething surrogate daughter Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) and is forced to cope with the desert heat, the cry of the coyotes and chirping cicadas… and Cay’s long, lingering stares.

There is a mutual attraction between the two women but can Vivian deal with her secret feelings, the homophobia of the times and Cay’s hell-for-leather exuberance? This charged movie is as much about female friendship as the blossoming love affair and isn’t shy about the difficulties of gay love in the 1950s – difficulties that were still an issue in the 1980s when the film was made. The acting from the three female leads is exemplary – Charbonneau became a lesbian heartthrob and the movie’s coming-out plot and sweltering love scene made it a firm favourite with lesbians everywhere.