Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) has decided to go through with her divorce, she is in her mid-thirties now and doesn't see the marriage going anywhere, therefore would be happier with the single life. She is an academic in New York, a professor of English literature and very respectable with it, so splitting with her husband might create a minor scandal in the America of the late nineteen-fifties, but nevertheless she won't change her mind and heads off to Nevada to make it official. While she is there, she needs somewhere to stay, so settles on a ranch out in the desert where soon-to-be divorcées can reside until the papers are signed and all is set. It is owned by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), and she has an unofficial family in her orbit...
Including Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau) who works at a local casino and is introduced to us driving backwards at high speeds along the highway to yell a conversation at Frances as she drives Vivian to the ranch, thereby establishing her rebel credentials as well as her skills behind the wheel - it would have been a short movie if Cay had hit that car heading towards her in the first five minutes. Thankfully it didn't, and Desert Hearts became one of the more notable American indies from a decade when such productions were burgeoning in popularity and prevalence, also standing out for its direction by a woman, Donna Deitch; she would go on to helm countless hours of television, so the what might have been regarding her film career remained a question mark.
What really made the impression Desert Hearts did was its sympathetic treatment of a gay love story, soundtracked to various lonely hearts ballads of the day and based on the novel by Janice Rule who actually was a lesbian in the United States of the fifties, penning a number of books on similar themes, so she knew of what she spoke. This appeared to be a romance where the lovers happened to be women, not presented as a novelty but then again not presented as an arrangement where society would be entirely welcoming either: there are those who are not bothered about Cay's orientation just as there are those it offends, but there's no doubting whose side the film was on. In any event, it was more the tale of Vivian's coming to terms with the fact that now she is free of her marriage she has found someone she can genuinely fall in love with.
Not that she dives straight into the relationship with gay abandon (so to speak), far from it, she needs to relax and accept Cay's love, with both Shaver and Charbonneau putting in sterling work as their characters tiptoe towards a loving union, the latter especially becoming in her part a minor icon of lesbian positivity with her casual but by no means insincere way of carrying her personality the stuff of role models. Of course, the sequence that had everyone talking was the love scene, not some crassly exploitative rumpy pumpy with the girl on girl action selling point, but a gentle and respectful course of events that built on the characterisation Deitch and her screenwriter Natalie Cooper (her sole script credit) had so carefully constructed.
If this was sounding too sensitive to be true, then that was undeniably an aspect, but Desert Hearts did not say life would be plain sailing for a same sex couple especially in the era it was set, and the three dimensional personas of the leads contributed authenticity to what could have been pat and sentimental. While Shaver's career continued to flourish, Charbonneau was relegated to supporting roles until she retired from the screen years later; a pity, but she proved herself memorable here at least. Desert Hearts was deceptively simple as a plot, almost straightforward as it moved from A to somewhere near Z but infused with the complications a relationship can bring, be it heterosexual or homosexual, acknowledging the latter may be even more complex thanks to society at large offering a mixed reception, but remained charming and sweet, quietly wrapped up with a neat ending chiming a much-needed note of hope.