Like a classic western, Desert Hearts begins with a stranger coming to town. Directed by Donna Deitch in 1985 and adapted from the novel by Jane Rule, the story is set in the scorching Nevada desert. But this is no classic western: the setting is not the Old West but 1959, and its plot centers on a blossoming lesbian romance. Furthermore, the stranger who rolls into town is decidedly no cowboy. Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) is a professor at Columbia University who arrives in Reno wearing a string of pearls and uncomfortable shoes, intending to establish temporary residence in the state so that she can obtain a quickie divorce.
Vivian is woefully unprepared for “desert living,” yet Desert Hearts invokes the western genre’s roaming feeling to capture Vivian’s placelessness and isolation in her transient home. She stays with Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), whose ranch is a place for women like her stuck in legal limbo, and before long crossed paths with the defiant drifter Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), a sort of adopted daughter to Frances.
Cay is like the town outlaw; she blazes down the highway playing her music loud and brazenly making her passions known. But her only crime is being a lesbian in the 1950s. She openly pursues relationships with women, and for this is relegated to living in a cottage “hideout” and dodging constant judgment from townsfolk. Though Vivian hears gossip about how Cay was kicked out of college for “unnatural acts,” there is nothing unnatural about Cay — she is entirely at home amidst the desert landscape, finding freedom in its adventurous expanse.
There is an immediate spark of sexual chemistry between Vivian and Cay. But whereas Cay puts everything out in the open in terms of her flirtations, Vivian keeps all her desires hidden inside. The film constantly uses its natural setting to reflect the emotions of the two women and highlight their differences, Vivian’s discomfort in the hot desert and preference to remaining indoors mirroring how she remains emotionally closed-off and isolated from the house around her. For Vivian, the outdoors, with its wide-open space and bright sunlight, leaves her far too visible and vulnerable to getting burned by the searing judgment of others. She only allows her feelings for Cay to start to peek through in private or darkened spaces where she has no fear of being caught. Late at night in the moonlit kitchen, they share a laughing connection charged with sexual tension, but when they go out together with horses the next morning, Vivian is unwilling to make any moves out in the desert sun.
Her fear of explicitly expressing her obvious interest in Cay is grounded in the 1950s’ intolerant attitude toward queer love. Vivian is not open about her sexuality and evades questions about her failed marriage or romantic past, resigning herself to being a lone rider without a partner. Each moment of the women’s seduction, as it very gradually progresses from tentative flirtation to physical intimacy, is defined by both literal and metaphorical divisions of space. Their first kiss is shared through a car window, Vivian inside and Cay outside in the pouring rain — which Vivian soon interrupts by rolling up the window between them. Torn between Nevada and New York and between her amorous passion and apprehension, Vivian struggles to find a place, any place, where she can act on her burgeoning attraction without feeling terrified.
The concerns that the social landscape will be inhospitable to her desires are not unfounded: when Frances discovers the relationship, she angrily evicts Vivian. Humiliated and made to feel like a criminal simply because of her sexuality, she is forced into a hotel on the fringes of town — living in a place of transience and estrangement. She becomes an outlaw not by choice but by force, the desert town rejecting this outsider and sending her as a tumbleweed into the wind. This seems to confirm that the desert is no place for Vivian to ever feel at home. The enemy these two outlaws face is not any of the typical bandits and gunslingers of the western genre, but their environment itself, which turns against them in its intensely unwelcoming homophobia.
As the prejudiced townspeople consistently call the relationship “unnatural,” they create an antagonistic relationship between the women and their environment. There seems to be no place for them to coexist, no soil here that allows their love to grow — the desert now seeming less a freeing expanse and more an inhospitable wasteland. Yet they go on the run together and try to find a place for their relationship wherever they can: when Cay arrives at the hotel, it becomes their temporary refuge, a place where they can have privacy unmarred by judgment and scrutiny. Finally, Vivian is free to express her pent-up passions without self-consciousness, and they make love in sensual encounter suffused with both feverish desire and fragility. The scene is silent except for the sound of a passing train as we watch them traverse new emotional and erotic terrain together, exploring the wildly exciting landscapes of one another’s bodies. Neither one might have a place to truly belong, but for now, none of that matters: here they fit in and fit together perfectly. It is at this moment that we finally see something shift in Vivian: she peels off her protective layers and allows herself to ride the erotic current despite not knowing where it will take her. Each touch from Cay provokes physical tremor that shakes Vivian further out of her self-imposed isolation, and each kiss threatens to move the earth.
However, there are still limits to how far Vivian can follow Cay’s lead in the world outside. Though they may have a temporary hideout inside the hotel room, their relationship continues to struggle to withstand life in the desert. When they go out together Cay is able to walk into a bar with the confidence of a cowboy entering a saloon, yet Vivian cannot bear the watchful eyes and intolerant glances. As second nature as her intimate moments with Cay feels, outside she still feels like she has a bounty on her head, and she flees. Vivian remains always on the run, only passing through the desert and not able to stay in any one place for too long. But Cay longs for something more than a visit from her — she wants roots, a real relationship. She wants to be able to live out in the open and be unashamed to express her lesbian identity or be seen in public with the woman she loves. Vivian, meanwhile, is forever “just visiting.” She is not ready to be out, and so she soon gets ready to end her visit and retreat back east as soon as her divorce is finalized.
Their relationship has always had an unspoken temporariness, and as Cay puts it: “We’ve been saying goodbye from the beginning.” To use a classic line from westerns, “this town isn’t big enough for the both of them” — not because they are enemies, but because the town is too small-minded to accept lesbian love. Where do they go from here? Where can they go?
Yet the film offers hope that their desire does not have to remain denied forever; though it offers no neat happy endings, it still offers the radical possibility that there is someplace, some future, where the two of them can be together. Maybe it takes escaping the wild west to start to find such a place. When Vivian gets on the train, she convinces Cay to jump aboard at the last minute, buying them some more temporary togetherness until Cay decides whether to stay or disembark. In this final moment, they embrace the placelessness and transience that has defined their relationship rather than avoiding it, going on the run together rather than running from one another. While met with some controversy upon its initial release, Desert Hearts is a romance that endures because of how it captures its surroundings and emotional complications with bittersweet beauty and lyricism; its examination of queer yearning and longing looks withstands the test of time as resilient as a cactus in the desolate desert. It remains uncertain where Vivian and Cay’s relationship will go next — but they have at least the next forty minutes until the train arrives at its next stop. So they tumble along together as the train chugs across the country, forging a new frontier for their romance and for the representation of lesbian love onscreen.