Donna Deitch’s 1986 film Desert Hearts was one of the first mainstream films to feature a lesbian relationship at its center. Now, more than 30 years later, it’s getting an upgrade: Based on out novelist Jane Rule’s 1964 book Desert of the Heart, the movie has been digitally restored by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. After screenings at Frameline, its heading to New York’s IFC Theater starting July 19. Deitch and stars Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A on opening night.
Set in 1959, the film follows Vivian (Shaver), an uptight English professor who moves to a Nevada ranch so she can establish residency and get a quickie divorce. Once there she meets Cay (Charbonneau), a free-spirited sculptor and the surrogate daughter of the ranch’s owner, Frances (Audra Lindley). As Cay and Vivian become closer, Frances becomes bitter—she’s got a homophobic streak, but it’s more that she’s fearful of being left all alone.
Beautifully acted, Desert Hearts earned kudos from the Independent Spirit Awards and took home Sundance’s Special Jury Prize. It’s an important hallmark in sapphic cinema with a legacy that still resonates: Ilene Chaiken asked the cast of The L Word to watch the love scene between Vivian and Cay to see how intimacy between two women should come across.
The film is also a rarity as a same-sex romance that doesn’t end in tragedy, but rather on a hopeful note—leading Ellen Page to declare “it’s probably one of my favorite final scenes of a movie [ever].”
Nostalgia for Desert Hearts has had fans asking for a sequel for years. Deitch, now a successful television director, says she’s working on it, telling Bustle the followup will see Cay and Vivian living in 1970s New York in the midst of the women’s lib movement.
“When you see what’s possible,” she says, “everything opens up for you.”