In the cinematic rendering of places on screen, LGBTQ films have always tended to reinforce the irreconcilable binary that separates urban and rural American spaces, and the folks who inhabit them. Queer theorists even coined the term ‘metronormativity’ to describe this idealistic conflation of queerness and the urban. It is true that big cities have always been representative of all things cosmopolitan, liberal, and forward-thinking; cities are places where kids run away to discover opportunity, seek education, and make something of themselves. Small town life is, by contrast, often depicted as suffocating, backwards, and often ultimately fatal for those who don’t fit into a narrow-minded view of ‘normal.’ So, for LGBTQ people, coming out often means a literal journey, as well as a figurative one, in search of a place that is welcoming of people like them. Maybe it’s New York City, maybe it’s San Francisco. It’s certainly not Reno, Nevada.
It is in this particular small town, in 1959, that Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts takes place. Columbia English professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) finds herself a reluctant temporary resident of Nevada in order to obtain a divorce – a practice so common that local rancher Frances (Audra Lindley) has set up a guest house for women to wait out the six-week legal processing. It is clear that uptight Vivian has little intention of getting to know Reno and its inhabitants, but her plans inevitably steer off-course when she meets Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), the much younger and free-spirited cowgirl raised by Frances. Cay’s interest in Vivian is thinly-veiled, and the two begin to spend more time together, which does not go unnoticed by the locals. Rural vs urban space plays an important role in Desert Hearts, but is not as straightforward a binary as one might expect. In fact, I would argue that the film is an example of queer anti-urbanism (a term popularised by Scott Herring) in that it tries to dislocate lesbianism from the metropolitan in queer consciousness, and instead foster desire in a distinctly rural, transitional space.
When she discovers their affair, Frances directly attributes Vivian’s supposed corruption of Cay with her education and inherent liberalism. However, it is Cay who is far more comfortable with her sexuality and actively pursues the older woman – even sensing her latent queerness before Vivian does herself. In fact, it is Vivian’s journey from the city to the country that is indirectly responsible for her sexual awakening. She steps off the train a picture of prim perfection, from her tight bun to her restrictive grey pencil skirt suit. As she settles into life on the ranch, Vivian’s appearance becomes far more relaxed; her hair is literally let down, and her clothes come to reflect the more colourful, laid back lifestyle out West. Though Reno has its fair share of close-minded conservatives, the rural space is simultaneously rendered a freeing, liminal domain between lives for Vivian, that allows her to discover herself.
Ironically, it would seem that Vivian’s life as an academic in an esteemed metropolitan institution, is instead linked to her sexual repression and subsequent austerity. Her long, sexless marriage to another professor appears to have been one of convenience rather than love, and she values her reputation above all else. Reno, then, is a place where Vivian is a nobody – she is able to lose herself in the vast desert landscape and become reacquainted with the feeling of freedom and spontaneity. Vivian and Cay’s relationship blossoms through a series of encounters that become increasingly intimate. A long walk in the desert, horses in tow, shows Vivian becoming increasingly relaxed with her surroundings and opening up to Cay as the pair while the afternoon away. The limitless space that surrounds them is liberating; this could be anytime, anywhere, and all that matters is the two of them.
After an engagement party for one of Cay’s friends, the two women drive out to Lake Tahoe in the middle of the night. The stillness of the water and cool night air create a sudden moment of tranquillity and reflection after the buzz of the party. Suddenly Vivian is exposed, and forced to reckon with the feelings that have been stirring inside her. When it starts to rain, Cay kisses Vivian – the sudden change in weather a perfect pathetic fallacy. The moment is one of fervent desire, though rapidly extinguished when Vivian comes to her senses. The sudden outburst represents a shift in Vivian, one that she is at first unequipped to deal with. However, Vivian finds herself unable to deny her attraction to Cay, even after the pair are kicked off the ranch by Frances.
The resolution of Desert Hearts is, surprisingly for its time, a happy one. Not only do Cay and Vivian sustain their romance, but Frances comes to understand and accept that Cay must make her own choices and live a life that makes her happy. It is this reunion that is particularly validating, as it shows that Cay does not necessarily have to renounce or be disowned by her rural community in order to live happily as a lesbian. Indeed, it does not appear to be Cay’s intention to leave Reno – even when the time comes for Vivian to return to New York. The film’s final scene shows Vivian boarding the train once again, persuading Cay to accompany her and explore all that the big city offers. But Cay is still reluctant to follow, instead agreeing to accompany Vivian as far as the next stop. This compromise shows that their attraction to one another transcends space and can possibly even survive the distance – both women are only at the beginning of a journey together, one that might end in Reno, New York, or somewhere else entirely.
You can find Desert Hearts on Criterion here and stream on the Criterion Channel
by Megan Wilson
Meg (she/her) is a northern Film Studies grad with an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, now working in secondary education in London. When not wrangling her cats or playing football, she dreams of being a professor and writing endless books on lesbian cinema just because she can. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she’ll always have a soft spot for Matilda. Find her on Twitter.
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