Desert Hearts
d. Donna Deitch (1985)
The Criterion Collection

A few months ago The Criterion Collection hinted that they’d be releasing Donna Deitch’s landmark film Desert Hearts. I had, I’m sad to say, never heard of the film, and I had never heard of Donna Deitch. I’m always open to what Criterion is releasing, but sometimes, naturally, I think some films just might not be for me. I was not terribly excited about Desert Hearts. This past weekend, though, I popped it in late one evening, thinking I’d just see how it opened. An hour and a half later, I wanted to watch it again. I read all I could find about it over the next few days, and I cannot wait to recommend it to those of you who have not seen it.

What a beautiful, touching, important, and deftly handled exploration of vulnerability, fear, and caring love, all in one of the first widely released films about a positive, rather than tragic or doomed, lesbian relationship. Deitch says in her interview included on the disc that she was actively seeking to make a film about a lesbian relationship that did not feature a heterosexual love triangle, that did not end in suicide, and that did not take place in New York City, as powerful as such films could be. Rather, she wanted one that provided an example of a relationship going through what we all go through when we’re insecure and falling in love.

I was compelled from the start, when the film opens on a train arriving in Reno, Nevada, in 1959. The scared Vivian Bell (played with no fear by Helen Shaver), a tenured Professor from The Big City back east, has arrived and uncomfortably disembarks, strolling around the train station with stiffness I assume is meant to display courage and sophistication but that really highlights her isolation and fear.

Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell

Vivian has come to Reno for one purpose — to get a divorce — and she will leave again once that has been achieved. Why Reno? For decades it was the easiest way to get a divorce if you lived in a state whose foolish, dangerous laws did not allow for no-fault divorce. In other words, if you were in a failing marriage there was no way to get a divorce from your spouse unless you proved that they had done something — like had an affair — that the state deemed worthy of divorce. Not being in love, having irreconcilable differences, being unable to prove abuse? Not enough. So people in these states have to either manufacture cause and fault or move to a state that allowed for no-fault divorce. This was a commonly utilized technique up until not that long ago; indeed, when I was in law school, New York still only allowed for fault-based divorces. I had to learn each of the legal bases for divorce and that going to stay for a night with another woman just to have witnesses say you were having an affair is not enough. No-fault divorce only arrived there in 2010. Now, all states have no-fault laws.

So here we have Vivian. Because she has no real grievances against her husband (at least, none she’ll share, and I believe she is being truthful when she says it’s just that they do not love each other) and, thus, no grounds for divorce in New York, she needs to get a divorce in Nevada, one of the quickest, least difficult avenues. However, in order for Nevada to have legal jurisdiction to grant her a divorce, Vivian needs to establish residency in Nevada — which, perhaps surprisingly, does not take a terribly long time: just six weeks. From my quick research, this is still the amount of time you need to “reside” in Nevada before you can file for divorce in a Nevada court house.

To pass the time, Vivian stays at a ranch outside of town that specializes in boarding women for these six week holidays. They even take you in and out of town to meet with the lawyer. The ranch is owned by Frances Parker (played by Audra Lindley). Living just on the margin of the ranch is Frances’s step-daughter, Cay, a lively woman who has decided she must never hide who she is.

Patricia Charbonneau as Cay Rivvers

Though used to it, Frances does not accept Cay’s homosexuality. To make things even more difficult, Frances is desperate to hold on to another age, one where things are going better at the ranch, where Cay’s father is still alive, and where her future looks more hopeful. This past may not have ever existed, but Frances is going to do her best to dwell in it. Part of that means being ultra-protective and possessive of Cay. Their relationship is a nicely complex and nuanced one of love and damage and tenderness, and Lindley and Charbonneau play it perfectly.

Vivian finds a friend in Cay and does not judge her for her homosexuality, but she also tries to make it clear that she is not, herself, attracted to Cay in that way. But she is. I was genuinely surprised at how clear and genuine their affection for each other is. Cay has been looking for someone who “counts”; Vivian is not looking — she has never opened herself up to love — but, for Cay, she is eventually willing to see what is really there.

Of course, like all good love stories, it’s not easy. The difficulty is, refreshingly, not simply because of the stigma against homosexuality, though that is there. Mostly it’s because Vivian and Cay not only come from different worlds but they also don’t naturally fit in each other’s world. As Cay says at one time, “We’ve been saying goodbye since you got here.” Vivian will be returning to her job in New York. Sure, Cay might love it there, but she’d be leaving behind a lot too.

Desert Hearts really is one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, and certainly one of my favorite Criterion releases of the year.

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