Screened as part of NZIFF 2018

Desert Hearts 1985

Directed by Donna Deitch World

The landmark lesbian love story returns to the giant screen as vibrant, beautiful and celebratory as ever.

USA In English
91 minutes DCP



Natalie Cooper. Based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule


Robert Elswit


Robert Estrin

Production designer

Jeannine Oppewall

Costume designer

Linda Bass


Helen Shaver (Vivian Bell)
Patricia Charbonneau (Cay Rivvers)
Audra Lindley (Frances Parker)
Andra Akers (Silver)
Gwen Welles (Gwen)
Alex McArthur (Walter)


Locarno 1985; Sundance, Auckland 1986


Best Actress (Helen Shaver), Locarno Film Festival 1985
Special Jury Price, Sundance Film Festival 1986


“Exuberant and sexy, Desert Hearts is the most untrammelled love story in this Festival, and the most assured and liberating lesbian movie ever. It belts along on fresh air, country music and sassy dialogue so that you can almost feel that warm wind in your hair.” — 18th Auckland International Film Festival, 1986

“‘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. The same can’t be said of Deitch’s 1985 film, her first, which became a sapphic touchstone precisely by not treating lesbian love as a topic for tourism (as Personal Best did in ’82) or something far worse (cf. The Children’s Hour, from ’61, among scores of examples).

Adapted from Desert of the Heart, the 1964 debut novel by lavender legend Jane Rule, and scripted by Natalie Cooper, Deitch’s movie takes place in Reno, Nevada, in 1959. Vivian, a 35-year-old literature professor at Columbia, has headed to the city for a quickie divorce from a fellow academic… The scholar – fragile, remote, wry, serious – ignites something in Cay, a coltish soft butch a decade younger who sculpts when she’s not working as a change operator at the casino. However self-assured, and no matter how many women may have shared her bed previously, Cay is also nakedly vulnerable around this soigné New Yorker. She is, in other words, falling in love, a condition never pathologized or diminished in Deitch’s film but rather celebrated to the fullest.” — Melissa Anderson, Village Voice (2017)