Released in 1985, “Desert Hearts” was groundbreaking. The story is set in 1959 and follows Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English teacher from New York who visits Nevada to establish a teaching residence. She is 35 (on the way to becoming single at this time) and is going through a divorce. In Nevada, she meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), a young woman who leads a completely different life of making art and living in the moment.
Groundbreaking for its time, “Desert Hearts” is a simple love story (no crime, murder or mystery) that hooks the viewer. That the film is independent, female-directed, stars two women, and is set on a ranch (perhaps the most traditional setting for testosterone-fueled stories) makes it all the more striking.
Against the backdrop of a beautiful landscape, the film explores the denouement of a deeply wounded protagonist as the two women slowly embark on a love affair that takes the majority of the film’s runtime to come to fruition. “Desert Hearts” may look like any other lesbian film made since, but it remains special years later. To get the film going, director Donna Deitch acquired the rights to lesbian author Jane Rule’s 1964 novel “Desert of the Heart” and then raised funds by sending out newsletters in the mail. “Desert Hearts” was a labor of love, and it set the bar high for modern lesbian films.