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Desert Hearts

Donna Deitch

Presented by Screen Queen

Donna Deitch’s swooning and sensual first film, Desert Hearts, was groundbreaking upon its 1986 release: a love story about two women, produced and directed by a woman. In the 1959-set film, an adaptation of a beloved novel by Jane Rule, straitlaced East Coast professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno to file for divorce, but winds up catching the eye of someone new, the younger free spirit Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), touching off a slow seduction that unfolds against the breathtaking desert landscape. With smoldering chemistry between its two leads, an evocative jukebox soundtrack, and vivid cinematography by Robert Elswit, Desert Hearts beautifully exudes a sense of tender yearning and emotional candor.

“Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver deliver compelling performances as the romantic teacher and her student, respectively (though it’s the latter who’s the professor at Columbia), and the soundtrack is charming as all get out. But it’s Deitch’s direction that elevates it above whimsicality, giving it that something, a je ne sais quoi, similarly embodied by her characters.” Kathleen Sachs, Cine-File

“Steeped in moody, classic country and western music, it conveys romantic longing and confusion with bittersweet intensity… The film has a beguilingly hypnotic atmosphere, like Shakespeare’s magical green world, where things change shape and identities are transformed… With neither cynicism nor sentimentality, Desert Hearts charmingly asserts the centrality of emotion, as well as its prankish surprises.” – Camille Paglia, Sight & Sound

“You’re just visiting the way I live,” confidently queer Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) cries out to newly lesberated Vivian (Helen Shaver) during their first romantic set-to in Donna Deitch’s swoony and sharp-witted Desert Hearts… A hotel-room seduction scene emanates as much erotic heat as the one in Carol, and the open-ended conclusion immediately calls to mind the great come-on uttered by sex-drunk Rita to Betty in Mulholland Drive: Go with me somewhere.” – Melissa Anderson, Village Voice

“… this is an astonishingly polished and nuanced first film. It deserves to be celebrated, not quibbled with.” – Paul Attanasio


  • 3/16 | 8:00PM
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