One of the seminal lesbian/gay films of the 1980s, and arguably the most romantic lesbian film of all time, "Desert Hearts" earns its deserved place in the canon for its rich characterizations, high production values, and its involving depiction of a time and place.

Set in Reno, Nevada in 1959, the film makes great use of period country-western music, shiny cars big enough to fit in the wide open space, and the social conformities that made it uncomfortable for a woman to get a divorce, never mind find herself attracted to another woman. That's what happens when New York literature professor Vivian Bell (a beautiful performance by Helen Shaver) goes to Reno for a divorce, taking up residence with other women at a ranch to wait out the divorce process. Like George Cuckor's 1939 classic "The Women," Reno becomes, in effect, a woman's retreat -- an unlikely spot in the middle of the desert where old lives end and new ones begin.

On the ranch, Vivian meets Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), the free-spirited step-daughter of the ranch's prickly proprietor (Audra Lindley). Sparks fly, and soon prim Vivian is meeting playful Cay at the casino where she works. The unlikely friendship raises eyebrows, and stirs confusion in Vivian, who is enjoying the sense of adventure and freedom Cay inspires. Director Donna Deitch, who adapted her film from the highly regarded novel "Desert of the Heart" by Jane Rule, knows how to create the tension of attraction. When the women share a first kiss in a rainstorm, the release is palpable, and it is impossible not to root for them.

When things unravel, Vivian is banished from the ranch and holes up in a hotel. Again, the tension Deitch creates results in one of the hottest sex scenes of any film, and certainly among lesbian films. Making use of natural sound, and allowing the scene to flow in real time, Deitch and the gifted actors convey the passion of intimacy in all its awkward, sweaty, scary, and freeing glory.

"Desert Hearts" is also historically important because it was the first lesbian-themed feature film written and directed by a woman. It was also the first that ends on an unambiguously positive note. The classically romantic ending does not mean the characters will necessarily live happily ever after. But the film makes us understand that their inner lives have been forever changed by love, and from that moment on, nothing could ever be the same.

--Loren King

(1986, USA)
Director: Deitch, Donna
Starring: Helen Shaver ; Patricia Charbonneau ; Andra Akers