Weekly Spotlight #10: Desert Hearts (Deitch, 1985)

In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. In honour of Pride Month, we turn our focus to the recently-restored lesbian romance Desert Hearts from director Donna Deitch.

In a pivotal scene, Helen Shaver’s character Vivian speaks of her time in Reno as nothing but a blur—that she can only remember her arrival there. I agreed with her in that moment. I remembered Vivian’s introduction like a new Blanche DuBois arriving at Elysian Fields, overdressed and starchy in hot and dusty environs, just barely hanging together. The subsequent events that are detailed are somewhat less distinct because Deitch fades in and out of scenes as though they were dreamscapes. The passage of time is barely perceptible, with the one constant being the growing attraction between Vivian and Cay. This is not to say that it’s ineffective. Quite the contrary. It makes the payoff that much diviner, knowing that soon the dream will be reality and these two women will act on their desires. To make everything that precedes this consummation a blur helps to capture the dizzying vitality of love and how our memories seem to disregard the inconsequential stuff when it reaches its fullest potentiality. There is no blur when sexual intimacy reaches its peak, or when devotion swells in the eyes across a restaurant table. When Vivian and Cay finally become one, Deitch doesn’t move time so much as stop it in its tracks, allowing us to relish every second of their togetherness before they must part once more.

Desert Hearts is filled with generosity. Deitch is generous with its openly queer eroticism, the actors are generous with their full-bodied performances, the screenplay is generous with affecting dialogue (even if it can get hokey sometimes), the soundtrack of ‘50s hits is generous with nostalgia, and so on. Its level of romanticism and honesty must have been such a comfort to those plunged headlong in the AIDS crisis—a reminder that same-sex partnerships would never cease being beautiful no matter who tried to say otherwise. All these years later, in an age where LGBTQIA+ stories are being normalized more and more in the mainstream, Desert Hearts still retains its power because its edges remain so daring. The long sex scene is part of it, of course, but also its notable avoidance of miserabilism and trauma. While not entirely happy, it’s a story that treats its protagonists well. They are not punished for their love, but instead become even better people for it. These kinds of stories are still needed today, believe it or not. Ones that celebrate queer love without the suffering, the demonization, the physical and psychological harm. Ones that, moreover, affirm its sanctity and make it binding.

If you’re in need of Pride Month viewing, try this one out and see if you agree. I think you will.


Desert Hearts is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion, and can also be streamed on The Criterion Channel.