Christmas in Nevada

Desert Hearts (1985)

Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell and Patricia Charbonneau as Cay Rivvers in Desert Hearts | The Criterion Collection/Janus Films
 Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver in Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts (1985) | image: Janus Films

For all its heartstopping honesty, gorgeous cinematography, and queer imagery, Desert Hearts is rarely invoked as an iconic queer love story. Instead, folks cluster around the poisoned Christmas tree of Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Carol. This is a crying shame. 

The two films couldn’t be more different. Far and away from the Reno hotel room where Cay and Vivian make love in Desert Hearts, the temperature is falling. In Carol, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones are two snowbanks carved across her arctic, impassive face. Inert and pale as a death mask, her expression is a masterpiece of injectables and vivid lipstick that floats over the frigid landscape of the 2015 film. Whatever light reflects off Blanchett comes back cold; it may draw naive lovers close, but so does hypothermia. Both emit a false warmth that lulls their victims into a fatal sleep. If Carol fulfills Robert Frost’s prognostication that the world will end in ice, Desert Hearts is tinged with fire. But while the heat threatens to consume the film’s characters, they find a way to sustain themselves with a slow burn instead. 

Carol is a romance the way Lolita is a romance. Neither the film nor the novel it is based on is warm-blooded. Carol is not a queer love story. It is not a Christmas movie. It is an icy and horrifying tale about women who sleep with women, enacting a passion that is only skin deep. Carol is a “lesbian” movie in the sense that it deals with sexual relationships between women. But it lacks love—even in the fulfillment of same-sex desire, Carol is a miserable ride through a homophobic, punitive culture. 

Don’t queer moviegoers deserve better?

In Desert Hearts, Helen Shaver plays Vivian Bell, a soon-to-be-divorced professor from New York. She is pursued by Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), a lesbian sculptor over a decade her junior. The 1985 film is set in Reno, Nevada in 1959. It is loosely based on a lesbian novel by Jane Rule called Desert of the Heart, published in 1964. Desert Hearts was the narrative debut of lesbian director Donna Deitch and is considered the first major film to depict a lesbian relationship that doesn’t end in heartache, disaster, or death

Set seven years after Carol’s exploration of the erotic wretchedness of lesbian attraction constrained by heterosexual society—but still in the pre-Stonewall era that represented oppression for so many queer people—Desert Hearts offers a kinder, warmer picture of the same kinds of challenges that bedevil Carol and Therese. Instead of the central lesbian relationship acting as escapist fantasy, lesbian love brings Desert Hearts’s main character into contact with an essential, beautiful part of herself; the relationship is a place where all things are true, and where reality cannot be denied. 

It is impossible for me to watch Carol without comparing it to its source material, Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. Published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, the novel was re-released in 1990. Throughout her career, Highsmith’s virulently antisemitic and racist views were well known. When she died in 1995, obituaries eulogized her as “a poisonous person” and “a Jew-hater,” and recalled how she infamously mocked the Holocaust as the “semicaust.” Her diaries, which were published in 2021, bear ample witness to her bigotry. 

Highsmith’s antisemitism leaks into the language of The Price of Salt, which plays to Ayn Randian ideas of Aryan beauty. The main character, an ingénue named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who aspires to a career as a set designer, takes a seasonal sales job at Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan. Mara, who has the charisma of a room-temperature blancmange, is a perfect blank slate. In Carol, her performance is so subdued that her unnervingly symmetrical face rarely moves. She is as expressive as the dolls she sells to harried shoppers. Her stillness separates her from the holiday bustle or the efficiency of the other workers. According to Highsmith, Therese believes her aesthetic sets her apart from the sordid reality she has succumbed to.

“The store intensified things that had always bothered her,” Highsmith writes in The Price of Salt. Therese is disgusted by the perceived physical imperfections of the other employees—at 50, they are “old,” with “distorted” eyes. One of them, Mrs. Ruby Robichek, is always eating. She invites Therese to have dinner with her after a long day at the toy counter. 

Ever ungrateful, Therese can only see that Mrs. Robichek’s apartment is gloomy and dark, not very clean. She is repelled by “the terrible, shocking ugliness of the short, heavy body with the bulging abdomen.” Her hostess wears a corset for her bad back and hobbles on feet aching with bunions. Therese wants everything to be beautiful, but she does not care about kindness. Ungenerous herself, she is unsure of how to accept others’ generosity. She is unwilling to be loved in any way by someone who is not “better” than she is. Fat, disabled, aging Mrs. Robichek is not permitted to offer any type of affection.

In a way, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is the perfect solution to Therese Belivet’s peculiar dissatisfaction with reality. If Mrs. Robichek is dingy, the miserably married Mrs. Aird is as pneumatic as an airfoil. Richard, Therese’s oblivious-yet-doting boyfriend, is another suitor. Therese sends him off as if he were a golden retriever, happy with a belly rub and a few rounds of fetch. (The men in the story, both book and film, are extraneous to the plot—inconvenient to the secret relationships that bud in plain sight, threatening to bloom under the snow.) 

Therese’s life changes when Mrs. Aird swoops into the toy department wrapped in fur, imperiously orders a Christmas present for her daughter, and exits in a wintry gust. There is no spark between Therese and Carol, no sly glance of mutual recognition or camaraderie. In the opulent hell of Frankenberg’s, the two women enact the ritualized exchange of retail. In the novel, as in the film, there is no flirting, or any conversation that would suggest mutual attraction. They part like two snowflakes, flitting in opposite directions. Haynes’s adaptation is true to the source material. Amid the whimsical, commercial golden tones of Frankenberg’s toy department, where a model train chugs through heaps of artificial snow and bright ornaments catch the sparkle of the overhead filaments, Therese and Carol are frozen. The blue tones in their makeup and dresses suggest they have the same iciness, but do not hint that they will warm toward one another.

Under natural conditions, Therese and Carol might have melted on separate squares of pavement. However, Carol’s unhappiness acts as a catalyst for their doomed love affair. Risking divorce, she abandons her daughter and high-tails it cross-country with her new “baby,” Therese. Seedy hotels, cigarettes, and a small lake of booze are an ignominious backdrop for their liaison, while a private detective hired by Mr. Aird bird-dogs them, one ear to their shared hotel wall. The sex scene that costs Carol her home, child, and marriage is so frigid that it should have been shot in a morgue.

Desert Hearts, in comparison, is a handful of western sunshine. Carol may be a “lesbian” movie, but Desert Hearts is queer. Carol focuses on the furtive, same-sex attraction between women. Desert Hearts is about love expressed in many ways. It does not culminate in sex or spell doom for the women who partake in it. If Carol and Therese are snowflakes, the star-crossed couple in Desert Hearts—Cay and Vivian—are sparks thrown heavenward from a smoldering campfire. 

There are a few similarities between the two films. Desert Hearts is also about a May-December relationship affected by one partner’s divorce from her husband. One partner is substantially more powerful than the other—at least until the desert turns the social order upside down. They meet at a B&B-style ranch outside Reno run by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), the former mistress of Cay’s now-dead father. Frances’s son Walter lives on the property, as well as the disaffected women who stay long enough to get their residency requirement for a quickie divorce. 

One of these women gossips to Vivian, telling her that Cay was tossed out of art school for “unnatural acts.” But in the desert, these restrictions don’t seem to matter. Vivian shrugs the news off with a smile; New York is far away, and the wide open spaces of the desert spell every possibility for her, for Cay, and for the other women who come to Reno. Their only limits are the expectations of others. 

In the novel on which Desert Hearts is loosely based, Jane Rule writes, “Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life.”

Leaving the conventions of New York, heterosexuality, and marriage behind is freeing for Vivian. Unlike Carol, she’s not trying to hide in plain sight—maintaining a steady string of unsuspecting lovers, while also holding onto the appearance of conventionality. Even the platonic relationships in Desert Hearts are unconventional. Cay’s best friend, Silver, shares a bathtub with her while Silver’s fiancé, Joe, makes them dinner; he muses on how lovely it would be to be reincarnated as a beautiful woman. Female friends lean close to one another, watch movies, share glasses, and kiss hello on the lips. There is no sly wink of queerness here; everyone is queer, expressing care without concern for who might see.

Vivian is drawn to Cay’s wildness. She is attracted without knowing why. In the first scene of the film, Vivian steps off the train at the Reno station, coming from the dark compartment into the desert sunshine. The film has a rich palette of pink, red, and gold, but in this scene, Vivian seems to have come from a place without color. Her hair is a modest chignon under her genteel hat, which matches her gray, sensibly-cut traveling suit. She is so unremarkable, so dull, that she fails to catch the attention of an attendant. Yet, as she acclimates to the heat, her hair comes unpinned; she puts on Western shirts embroidered with flowers, and she trades her too-tight shoes for a pair of comfortable riding boots. She flowers in this harsh environment. In taking refuge from her failed marriage, she has the beautiful experience of coming into contact with her true identity. 

Cay’s frankness melts the city frost right off of Vivian. Cay’s sexuality is plain to everyone, and she doesn’t hide it—from Silver, or the boyfriend who won’t quit mooning over her, or the gorgeous girls who flit in and out of her cottage at the ranch. The first time Vivian sees Cay, Cay is driving in reverse gear in a top-down convertible, at top speed, in the oncoming lane of a two-lane highway. Her hair whips around her face and her irresistible grin is exuberant. She faces away from everyone else, flying toward her future in her own way without a single doubt about her ability to grasp the wheel.

The sun is warm in Deitch’s film, and as Cay and Vivian form a friendship, the summer passes around them. Vivian has only a few weeks to get her residency, finalize her divorce, and then head back to school for the fall semester. Yet, there seems to be no rush between them. Unlike Carol, there is no scene of hierarchical initiation into sex, nor a moment where one woman gives the other a name or outlet for her same-sex attraction. Instead, this is expressed with equality and tenderness. After Cay confesses that she cares for Vivian, Vivian retreats to Cay’s car. She wants to go home. A late summer rainstorm soaks her clothes and disorders her hair. She shivers in the passenger seat until Cay knocks on the window.

“Roll it all the way down,” Cay says, and when Vivian does, Cay reaches in and kisses her. The rain saturates both of them, and Vivian’s dry, muted, conventional life is never the same again. Later, when she’s banished to a solitary hotel room, the film shows a long shot of her face as she stands under the stream of a shower. Rivulets of water run over her cheeks and forehead, washing away the person she thought she was. (Cay’s last name, then, proves to be prophetic.) There is rain in the desert at last; new growth is possible, even in the harshest imaginable conditions.

Rather than act as a predator or instigator, Cay comes to Vivian’s hotel room because she can’t help herself—she’s “scared to death” she’ll never see Vivian again. She is as vulnerable as Vivian, for different reasons. She is not new to lesbian sex, but has never cared for someone in this way. At first, Vivian refuses to open the door. But then, Cay confesses her fear. She punctuates it with a soft, “Honest.” 

Her honesty prompts Vivian to let her in. After protesting that she is a “respected scholar” and that she will “write a short story for [her] revenge” on Reno and its unsettling people, Vivian realizes that Cay has taken off her clothes and is waiting in the hotel bed. The ensuing five-minute sex scene is one of the most realistic, breathtaking, and candid exchanges in film. Unlike Carol, which is a series of Vogue-quality close-ups of touching lips and lingering hands, Desert Hearts shows Vivian and Cay from the edge of the bed. They are fully present; their bodies are presented as whole, not a collection of parts. Natural light softens their skin, and they move without the practiced expertise of models. They laugh, they tremble, they hold one another. When Vivian has an orgasm, her breath shudders out of her, releasing the last vestiges of her respectability.

How different it is from Carol Aird’s embarrassing, blurted “I love you” at the Ritz! Having lost her husband, her social position, her child, and her home, Carol is reduced to getting an apartment and a job. She is where Therese started out—and Therese, jaded, is not interested in her newly degraded lover. Their positions are reversed, and now it is Therese who wants to play make-believe, to live in a world without consequences or responsibility. She sees Carol’s weakness, and instead of embracing what is behind the frozen mask, she rejects it. She will not be vulnerable again. 

In Rule’s novel, there is an explicit confession of love. Vivian, coming to terms with her attraction to Cay and what it means, says: “Because I can’t help loving you, your wild, inaccurate emotions, your bizarre innocence, your angry sense of responsibility, your wrong-headed wit, your cockeyed joy, your cowboy boots, your absolutely magnificent body, your incredible eyes. I can’t help it. I don’t know how anyone could.” 

They are both driving backwards, but summer’s end is just around the bend. Carol, which ends at a party—one with a Carrie Brownstein cameo, no less—maintains the same austere distance that marked the initial attraction between Carol and Therese. They stay politely within their social bounds, nodding at one another through the wall of ice that has always separated them. Cay and Vivian’s story ends differently.

The professor has to go back to New York; it’s unavoidable. Work is there, her friends, and the cleaning up of life. She puts her gray suit on; this time, it is unbuttoned, the lapels flapping loose like a seagull’s wings. Yet, at the last moment, she can’t bear to leave Cay behind. She asks her to come along. “We’ll talk about it one of these days,” Cay says. She hops aboard the train as it picks up speed, promising to stay only until the next station—another 40 minutes, Vivian says, is all she wants.

They have agreed to meet at Christmas, but anyone who’s been in love can tell you that Christmas is any day with the person you belong to. “She just reached in and put a string of lights around my heart,” Cay tells Frances. Desert Hearts may not be a holiday movie, but it is wrapped in a lavender ribbon, and what’s inside can warm up even the chilliest winter heart.