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Retro Sundance: 1986 Special Jury Prize Winner, Desert Hearts

Team Film Experience isn't at Sundance this year, so instead we're going back through the years to discover and revisit some Sundance classics. Here is Glenn with the 1986 winner of the Special Jury Prize, Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts.

It was a happy accident that on a whim I picked the 1985 drama Desert Hearts to write about today given we’re still very much wrapped up in the warm bosom of Carol. I had not seen Donna Deitch’s film before and had no idea prior to sitting down to watch it that it shared so much in common with Carol, 30 years its senior. I was aware of course that it was a lesbian romance, and I was also aware that the film is (famously) regarded as the first film to allow a lesbian romance to end without tragedy. Still, there were moments where beat-for-beat the films are almost identical. I would be interested to read the novels side by side and see if they’re as alike as their adaptations.

Adapted from Jane Rule’s novel Desert of the Heart, this Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is also set in the 1950s with two women (Helen Shaver and Independent Spirit Award nominee Patricia Charbonneau) of a significant age difference, the eldest of whom is currently in the process of a divorce, who come together much to the surprise of at least one of the pair – although this time it is the younger of the two who finds herself attempting to coax the older woman out from behind her guard. Most striking is how both end not just on similarly optimistic notes, but with almost identical build. Of course, Desert Hearts differs in the way its romance blossoms under the heat of a Reno sun, Shaver’s impractical clothing choices and sever hairstyle slowly becoming more free and loose as her worldview expands thanks to the frank openness of Charbonneau’s younger casino floor-girl a neat costume-oriented touch among the film's mise-en-scene.


I recently wrote about how under-represented lesbian cinema is in most queer cinema coverage. And that's not surprising given that the filmmaking industry, film criticism and cinema academia circles all appear to be as male-dominated as each other. The Advocate’s perplexing Top 175 Essential Films of All Time for LGBT Viewers list featured only 40 titles that could legitimately claim to have women central to their stories (and that’s being brave and including Showgirls), while Autostraddle’s comparative 100 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time features all too many movies that I would guess are completely unknown to many, suggesting the field is far thinner. Even GALECA, an organization of which I am a member, included only two films about gay women (The Kids are All Right and Boys Don’t Cry) in their recent and awkwardly titled 10 Best LGBTQA Films Every Non-LGBTQA Person Should See list. Another reason why Carol feels so vital and important, especially when placed alongside Grandma, Appropriate Behaviour and even Bessie and Freeheld, which suggests maybe the scales are about to tip.

Desert Hearts wasn’t the first, but it’s certainly one of the most significant and an important forebearer to Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy's sublime Carol. Certainly, Desert Hearts suffers from being a debut feature and being made in a time when independent narrative cinema was not as it is today. It’s not, however, surprising to see the film won a prize at Sundance (besting another early moment for gay cinema, Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances) given how sincere and earnest it is, yet isn't afraid to portray its themes so openly both in words and in visuals. Its most memorable moment, for instance, is also its sexiest – an erotic sex scene that has influenced lesbian representation ever since.

If you fell under Carol's spell then I would highly recommend Desert Hearts. There's certainly nothing cold or chilly about this one.

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Reader Comments (10)

Glenn - thank you for this post, just yesterday I mentioned "Desert Hearts" in one of my comments.
( I must be psychic or perhaps you are.)
It is indeed very similar to "Carol" in that it was set in the 50's and was based on a novel where 2 women fall in love and this does not result in tragedy. This was a pathfinder of a movie at the time, and does follow the book quite closely. It's not as lush as Todd Haynes "Carol" but the scenes set in Reno and the desert have a laid back charm. The main character is in Reno to get a divorce and falls in love with a woman at her boarding house.
If you have already seen "Carol" and want something similar -check it out.

January 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

My favorite piece of movie swag EVER is when Wolfe Video did the DVD release for Desert Hearts and sent out pens with that little floaty/slidey feature of the car going backwards.

January 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

I feel like such a bad movie-loving lesbian for never having seen Desert Hearts - it doesn't have an *excellent* reputation but this (and the thought of a future Carol double feature) gives me hope and the inspiration to watch. I'm so glad you brought up that Autostraddle list because even among queer women we acknowledge that the quality of our movie representation is mildly terrible. And even if when it's great it's often misunderstood (that But I'm a Cheerleader RT score made is VERY UPSETTING). Hopefully Carol itself and the conversations it's started will at least lead to a better standard of choices overall.

(Oh, and thanks for calling out that 'universal love story' BS in your other article because that's rubbed me sooo the wrong way)

January 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Good read. For some reason I have never seen it. Now I got homework to do!

January 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

i've never seen this one either. i had no idea it had ANY similarities to Carol.

January 21, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Olivia, thank you so much! I think it's reputation would have dipped during the '90s when far more aggressive queer titles were the norm, but it's high ranking on many lists of gay cinema suggest it's well liked and its reputation soaring again. Like I said, it is a debut feature from a time where indie films weren't today's version of an indie film (the director mortgaged her house to finance it, for instance), but it ultimately succeeds. And, yes, a CAROL double feature would be lovely.

And thanks for the nod of approval for the "Carol isn't a universal love story" concept. I know the actors were no doubt forced into that line of comment as a means of appeasing queasy Oscar voters (it didn't necessarily work), but how is that romance universal? It is directly linked to the pain of a repressed society.

Corey, that sounds wonderful! That scene was one of my favourites.

LadyEdith, where did you mention the film? I'll have to find it :)

January 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn - 2 days ago to Wed. Jan.20 - check the article: Linkages: Wondrous Women, Chilly Lesbians, and Academy In-Fighting - you'll see my comment there. Great minds think alike and all that.
I'm a little surprised that the film was so unknown to most of you, but no did a very nice review. Thank you again :)

January 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Got it!

January 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I don't recall DH ever played on screen in my city, but I was lucky enough to catch it on the late lamented Z channel back in the early cable days.

January 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterFinLogan

What? No!
I was a bit dissapoiunted with DH.... I hope it's not the same with Carol!

January 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

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