Desert Hearts debuted in September 1985 at the Telluride Film festival in Colorado, and was released in the UK May of 1986. Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, director Donna Deitch and screenwriter Natalie Cooper offered audiences something which remains unusual, a feature film about a lesbian relationship that ends well. In many ways, Desert Hearts is the precursor to Carol: both are adapted from novels, both are set in the recent past, both handle the constellations of affect which circle lesbian relationships, and neither do so at the expense of their protagonists, or of their audience.
However, as the Eyes Wide Open programme states, Desert Hearts is probably the most conventional of the narratives presented in this autumn’s season, and one of the more conventional narratives preceding New Queer Cinema. Desert Hearts is a forerunner to this loose alliance – which was so termed by American film scholar B. Ruby Rich in 1992 – and it’s a film whose reception maps many of the issues at stake for lesbians and queer women in the years preceding, and including, what Rich identified as a turning point for sexually dissident cinema.
Desert Hearts has been met with simultaneous praise and criticism, and unsurprisingly this has come from lesbian and queer perspectives in particular. This is what I want to think about – rather than revealing plot or dialogue, I want to focus on how the film was received, and how its reception in the UK reflects a pre-existing split within lesbian politics during the mid-to-late 1980s.
The London Times described Desert Hearts as “a beautifully controlled drama about reaching out and taking chances, set in Reno during the late 1950s.” The Guardian summarised the movie (programmed as part of the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) as a “non-exploitative lesbian love story.” In a longer interview with Deitch, The Sunday Times wrote that she “has tackled a woman’s subject that would be hard for a male to take on. Palatable, as opposed to porno, films about overt lesbian relationships are almost non-existent, so her film, from a novel by Jane Rule, is breaking new ground.”
These are some examples of more mainstream reception – not necessarily voices from ‘within’ the LGBT sphere – and that was half the point of Deitch’s film. The experience of watching Desert Hearts intentionally feels like that of a mainstream movie. Deitch wanted to make a big budget production slick enough for wide release and distribution; she personally raised funds for the film, mortgaging her house so that she could afford the rights to include songs from Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Desert Hearts was recently re-mastered by Criterion, and in many of the interviews with Deitch around its re-release, she’s emphasised that the film was meant to be a lesbian love story, but one which would be accessible to a wide audience, and universal in its appeal and messaging – a goal which is reflected in its reviews by more staid publications.
A different take came from London-based queer magazine Square Peg, a magazine for self-described “modern perverts.” Square Peg viewed the film through a more critical lens, focusing in on the fact that Deitch chose not to ask her actors whether they were lesbians or straight, a decision that Square Peg felt was a political failing – the anonymous author of the interview argues that casting lesbians to play lesbians is akin to casting people of colour to play people of colour – a political decision with some urgency. Deitch has repeatedly defended this decision, saying that she wanted the best actors for the roles, regardless of their orientation, and emphasising that it was difficult to get anyone to audition for the film, let alone out lesbians, especially amidst Hollywood’s prevailing homophobia, which was exacerbated the snowballing severity of the AIDS crisis, and crackdowns on non-normative culture by the Reagan administration and far right lobbies.
I think it’s fair to say that these same conditions of the film’s conceptualisation and production inflect its mood. In a 1990 roundup of recent “women’s cinema,” Theresa de Lauretis asked whether Desert Hearts (among others) could be truly considered an alternative film, and similar to Square Peg, noted that one of the film’s leads, Patricia Charbonneau, took pains during the press tour to appear with her husband and child, to establish a straight public persona which legitimised her turn as a sexually assured lesbian, highlighting that her rendering of this other was a role rather than her reality. Further compounding this sense of doubt, in her analysis of Desert Hearts, critic and film scholar Mandy Merck cites a review in monthly magazine New Socialist, which proposed that the film “wanted to have its cake and eat it…any challenge lesbianism might represent is underplayed.”
Of course it isn’t unusual for a film, and especially a film which focuses on a ‘minority lifestyle’ or ‘minority interests’ to open this kind of debate, but I want to propose that this split in opinion reflects conversations and arguments already prevalent within lesbian and lesbian feminist circles during the 1980s.
Desert Hearts was released during the middle of the Sex Wars, which refers to a loose grouping of events, debates, and concerns beginning at the end of the 1970s, but which picked up in the 1980s and lasted into the 1990s. The Sex Wars, briefly put, occurred around disagreements over whether pornography, sexual fetishism, butch/femme identification, domination and submission (amongst other practices) were inherently oppressive, and indicated a complicity with hetero patriarchal culture and society – for example, if you practice S/M roleplay, you’re selling out to the premise of a man’s world, to a desire for power and control. Conversely, women argued that these practices were crucial for fostering greater personal freedom and experimentation in terms of women’s – and lesbian – sexuality.
To be sure, Desert Hearts was less controversial than other films released around the same time – Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things proved galvanising when it was screened in London in 1988, on account of what the anti-porn camp saw as sexually exploitative tendencies – some cinema goers attempted to rip down the screen and stop the showing. But this is precisely the grounds on which The Guardian praised Deitch’s effort – a non-exploitative lesbian love story, by which they meant (or I assume they meant) one which gives more screen time to romance than sex, and one which is framed through a female gaze – insofar as a female gaze can be conflated with a female director. We can return as well to the Sunday Times’s brief synopsis: “a beautifully controlled drama about reaching out and taking chances, set in Reno during the late 1950s.” Nothing about this one line summary implies that the film is focused on lesbian relationships or sexuality.
There is no denying that Deitch passes the Bechdel test, but what kind of representation does she effect, and who does it speak to – or for? If the pro-sex, or sex radical camp wanted a lesbian image that would challenge the lesbian feminist ideal that, as the joke goes, sex is two women in bed holding hands, they might be disappointed. While there is a particularly good sex scene toward the end of the film, those searching for uncomfortable and unpalatable images to challenge mainstream perceptions of what lesbians do would be left wanting. Meanwhile, the popular feminist monthly Spare Rib gave Desert Hearts a glowing assessment. “No one picture can fill the huge gap” left by the failures of writers and directors to accurately portray lesbian life, Spare Rib writes, “but nevertheless, Desert Hearts is true to its subject matter,” a judgement made partly in response to the film’s lack of sensationalism over its treatment of sex.
The film’s varied reception situates it amidst these debates, which can be reductively posed as pro- vs anti-assimilation into straight life, pro vs. anti-representation of porn and sex, and even queer vs. lesbian, a fissure emergent from the Sex Wars, and from the embrace of certain sexual practices and the politics amassed around them. It was for said reason that this introduction takes its title from a quote spoken early on in the film: “lots of iced tea and no deep thinking,” a reflection on life in the desert which could just as easily be used to describe the film if you were to approach it from the angle of a politicised sex radicalism, or critical film theory. In what is the only sustained academic analysis of the film’s release and reception, Jackie Stacie revealingly notes that while the film was popular with lesbian audiences, like the women at Spare Rib, lesbian academics were mostly silent – or in the case of Merck, brief, and excoriating.
But inasmuch as queer media like Square Peg criticised the film, lesbian academia ignored it, and the straight/feminist media seemed to praise it, Desert Hearts is something of a pre-cursor to New Queer Cinema, albeit one which sits uneasily within this categorisation. I want to end by thinking about this, because posing Desert Hearts along these lines is a useful way to complicate this moment of the Sex Wars, which has been historicised too reductively as a clean split between two ideologically discrete camps.
Writing in 1992, Rich described the characteristics of a New Queer Cinema as “renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image” – all of which, arguably, Desert Hearts pushes towards. But so many of New Queer Cinema’s pet films differ drastically from Deitch’s forerunning effort, notably in their almost aggressive deployment of sexuality as central to both narrative and character development. Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Derek Jarman’s Edward II, Todd Haynes’s Poison, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho – Rich identified appropriation, pastiche and irony as consistent traits, but the middle finger directed at heteronormative society which was so central to queer politics and organising is certainly another. Romance, if a factor at all, is irreverent and/or fury driven, not sentimental and soul searching, a quality I would ascribe at least in part to the predominance of male filmmakers, and to New Queer Cinema’s position in the thick of the AIDS crisis.
And this is where Desert Hearts notably differs – it is, undoubtedly, a love story. Romance drives the plot, which, although centred on a coming out, never quite over-determines lesbianism as a conflict, whether social or psychological. These issues emerge, but are faced and resolved. In fact, the word lesbian is never used; ‘queer’ is said once, as an insult, but the character Vivian hits it down. So how do we pose the film as queer when it might not visibly read as such, especially along the markedly political lines early queer art and theory strived to uphold?
In spite of the ambivalence with which the film was received by some lesbians – a result, as I argue, of recent debates over how a lesbian representation should appear, and what it should imply – Desert Hearts offers its own contribution to the impending moment of queer cinema.
Rather than nihilism, Desert Hearts offers the possibility of romance, and lesbian romance at that, and this is what I want to retrieve in terms of reading the queer back into it. It offers romance without presuming a happily ever after. Without giving anything away, the film’s final scenes are remarkably open-ended. The story of its protagonists does not follow the prescriptive trajectory that a heterosexual narrative would, but nor does its lack of conclusion read as a tragedy, or a failure. It is satisfyingly left to our imagination, which to my mind is an undeniably queer trait. The film havers between these camps: pro vs. anti-sex, pro vs. anti-assimilation, queer vs. lesbian – complicating and reading them into and against each other. And its peculiar position amidst the Sex Wars – as both too much and not enough – confirms this ambivalence.
With this in mind, I want to end with a question, or a speculation, which is how to be both queer and a lesbian at the same time – not a dyke, but very specifically a queer lesbian, what this might look or feel like, what it might do in terms of exploding and renegotiating the specificity of these categories which are so inscribed into histories of the Sex Wars, and how this might help us to understand them better. Desert Hearts offers a starting point for thinking about whether this is possible – a film that’s both bound to lesbian representation but also a little bit queer, although perhaps not in the ways you might expect.
by Flora Dunster