The lingering heat of Desert Hearts

Lori Gum

Mon, Oct 09, 2017

Thursday, October 12 brings a new digital restoration of Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch's vintage same-sex romance, to the Wex's Film/Video Theater. For those who weren't around or aware when it was released in 1985, Lori Gum offers a personal memory of the film's initial impact, what it represented, and why it's still essential viewing. The former director of Columbus' LGBT Fest for the Columbus International Film & Animation Festival, Lori has a passionate love of film and a long and colorful history of working in the industry. 

Desert Hearts movie kiss image

We mostly talked about that string of saliva. From that kiss. In that scene.

There is little else about 1985's Desert Hearts that I remembered before reviewing it 30 years later for this blog. As an out lesbian in 1985, that sex scene was a revelation to me; a brash, bold, authentic portrayal of erotic lesbian love without shame or apology, shot not in shadows (Lianna, 1983) or accompanied by an over-aestheticized mise-en-scène (The Hunger, 1983) or as a side story in a film about female athletes (Personal Best, 1982). Instead, this film is shot in bright, desert-pasteled daylight as a center-stage scene of female discovery, desire, and empowerment. It was something we as a lesbian community had never seen before. And it was hot. And memorable.

In the post-Blue Is the Warmest Color era, this film will no doubt appear provincial and tame. But the fact that The Criterion Collection recently added a newly restored Desert Hearts to its archive gives us some idea of this film’s importance, maybe not as a cinematic masterpiece, but as a historical gem; a queer film made by a lesbian filmmaker in a time when that feat was nearly impossible to imagine.

Director Donna Deitch would need to employ the celebrity heft of Gloria Steinem and Lily Tomlin just to get the film funded, which took several years. Deitch was clear from the beginning that this was to be a simple film illustrating the sincerity and tenderness of female same-sex love while denying the decades-old cinematic convention that at least one queer character meet a tragic end to pay for the societal sin of homosexuality. For a queer film, a "happily ever after" ending was a radical notion in 1985 and would forever mark this endeavor as a pioneering achievement. Unfortunately, still we have not entirely escaped the era of dead queer lives as Oscar fodder considering films such as Boys Don't Cry, MonsterBrokeback Mountain, and Milk, but at least now we are dying onscreen because of society's cruel intolerance, not because we are inherently paying for the sin of simply being queer and falling in love. Desert Hearts helped make that shift possible.

The film's profound originality is revealed in yet another way through the character of 25-year-old wild-child Cay Rivvers. Sexually confident and pugnacious, loud-out-and-proud Cay refuses, at any cost, to compromise her authentic self for societal approval and familial acceptance. She wields her braggadocio like a switch-blade throughout the film, slashing through decades of queer cinematic shame, angst, and submission. For those of us in the lesbian community who leaned towards a more masculine identity, this was joyous and empowering. Even though Patricia Charbonneau’s Cay never quite mustered the full swagger in her performance that the script offered, we saw ourselves in her.  Cay’s persona was a quenching gulp of cinematic visibility in our lonely, parched desert of moviegoing.

Near the end of the film, Cay is asked why she lives her life as boldly as she does. "I don’t act this way to change the world," she says with defiance. "I act this way so the goddamned world doesn't change me."


With that, Desert Hearts reached in and put a string of lights around our queer, yearning hearts.  And our lives got just a little brighter.