Background: An important yet overlooked milestone in lesbian cinema, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (Spine #902) arrives to the Criterion Collection.

Story: While awaiting the completion of her byzantine divorce proceedings at a Nevada ranch, uptight English professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) is captivated by free-spirited sculptor Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). Despite being the late 1950s, Cay is an out, unapologetic lesbian who openly flirts Vivian. Though initially hesitant to reciprocate, Vivian embraces Cay and the two make love. Their fledgling relationship is challenged when Cay’s surrogate mother Frances Parker (Audra Lindley) tries to separate them, but the two end up catching a train back to Bell’s home in New York City, eager to start a new life together.

All images from Criterion Collection

The Film: It’s a spoiler to say that Desert Hearts has a happy ending, but that happy ending is itself the point of the film: a lesbian love story that ends in triumph, not tragedy. In today’s culture where a cerebral LGBTQ+ film like Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight can win Best Picture, Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero” can win Emmys, and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name can be proclaimed as one of the decade’s finest films, this may not seem significant. But in the 1980s, positive depictions of homosexuality were practically nonexistent. Gay people were pedophiles or sexual predators. And on the rare chance that homosexuals were treated with dignity, their stories would end with them broken, defeated, or dead.

In this context, Desert Hearts feels revelatory. Based on Jane Rule’s ground-breaking lesbian-themed novel Desert of the Heart, the film subverted cultural expectations by appropriating the look, texture, and emotions of lavish Hollywood melodramas—no small feat considering the film’s budget of less than one million dollars. (Dietch had to sell her house to afford the music rights.) Set against the empty desert—that most sacred of American settings—the film reclaims the iconography of the mythic West for the very women it so long ignored: endless highways, sprawling prairies, smoky dive bars with jukeboxes blaring rockabilly and country.

Even more curiously, for a film about lesbianism in 1950s America, it’s remarkably non-combative. Deitch creates a fantasy world where homosexuality is tacitly accepted as a fact of life, even among Stetson hat-wearing cowpokes. There are no raving bigots, no ranting preachers threating Cay and Vivian with damnation, no explicit antagonists. All of Cay’s friends know she’s a lesbian—even her smitten boss at work admits he can look the other way towards her “preferences.” Her best friend Silver (Andra Akers) has no qualms sharing a bath with her despite being straight. At Frances’ ranch where she lives, the burly groundskeeper good-naturedly jokes to Cay about the string of beautiful women going in and out of her bedroom: “How do you get that much traffic without any equipment?” The only instances of homophobia in the entire film come when Frances lashes out at Vivian near the end. And even then, we sense that it comes less from a place of genuine hatred than from a pathetic fear of being left alone if Cay runs away with her new lover. Cay and Frances even tearfully make up at the end. It’s this evocation of a homophobia-free universe that elevates Desert Hearts from mere lesbian melodrama to the most tantalizing of wish-fulfillment fantasies.

The Supplements: The Collection’s release contains the expected line-up of audio commentaries, interviews, and short documentaries one would expect from a historically significant yet somewhat obscure film. But the most intriguing supplement is the insert essay by film critic B. Ruby Rich. Unlike many insert essays, Rich’s does more than dryly analyze the film’s artistic merits. Instead, she dives deeply into the film’s impact within the lesbian community and the burgeoning American indie movement. Even more interesting: how the film accurately portrays lesbian culture in the rural midwest. Who knew honky-tonk dive bars could be so progressive?

Overall: Desert Hearts is first and foremost an important film, the very kind of under-appreciated yet culturally momentous film the Criterion Collection works so valiantly to preserve and distribute. It would have been nice to see it get the kind of lavish, two-disc release afforded to their prestige films: a giant booklet, an extra disc of special features, a bigger social media push. But what’s here does the trick of presenting the film as the milestone it is.

Film Grade: B+

Criterion Grade: B+