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O Pioneers!

Donna Deitch, Desert Hearts, 1985, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) and Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau).

NEVADA IS FAMOUS for shotgun weddings, but from 1931 to 1970, the state was a mecca for prospective divorcées. It was one of few places in the US that offered a wide range of legal grounds for ending a marriage, and it had a lax residency requirement—a mere six weeks. Divorce became a veritable industry in Reno, where dude ranches catered specifically to those looking to untie the knot.

This Wild West is the unlikely setting for the same-sex romance depicted in Desert Hearts (1985), which was recently digitally restored by the Criterion Collection, Janus Films, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive in collaboration with Outfest and the Sundance Institute. Directed by Donna Deitch, the film is a loose adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 novel, Desert of the Heart, which is set in the late 1950s and follows the love story of Evelyn Hall, a forty-year-old English professor from Berkeley who’s come to Reno to divorce her mentally unwell husband, and Ann Childs, a twenty-five-year-old ranch hand where Evelyn is staying. The novel’s chapters oscillate between Evelyn’s and Ann’s perspectives as they engage in pseudo-intellectual banter about monogamy (“Fidelity is one of those green, sane words that grow like weeds in everyone’s garden”), psychoanalyze themselves and each other, and contemplate the physical and moral desolation of the desert (a landscape that, in Ann’s view, seems to tell “the simple truth about the world”). The film changes the protagonists’ names—Evelyn becomes “Vivian Bell” and Ann “Cay Rivvers”—and opts for a distinctly sentimental tone that stands in marked contrast to the literary gravity of the novel. The choice for Deitch was entirely deliberate. “Because the story of Desert Hearts was so controversial in its time, I thought that it would be best served by having the style be very accessible. I wanted to cloak this film in the garb of a mainstream Hollywood romance,” the director recently explained.

To realize this vision, Deitch enlisted Robert Elswit as her director of photography (he would later work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s evil-frontiersman blockbuster,There Will Be Blood [2007]), and Robert Estrin (who had worked on Terrence Malick’s Badlands [1973]) as her editor. The resulting collaboration is a stunning pastel montage, shot in sumptuous 35 mm, of oneiric Western settings. The camera often literally revolves in a panoramic sweep, as we see Vivian and Cay traipsing along the shore of a lavender-hued Pyramid Lake at dawn; through raucous hordes of gamblers in the chintzy casino where Cay works nights; and across fields of sagebrush, the Sierra Nevadas looming in the background.

In the opening scene, a train arrives at a station, moving horizontally across the frame. Several people emerge from a Creamsicle-colored car, the last of whom is Vivian, clad in a powder-blue skirt suit, kitten heels, gray tilt hat, and pearls. Outside the station, she is picked up by Frances, the proprietor of the dude ranch where Vivian is to ride out her Nevada sojourn. No sooner do the pair hit the open road than Cay, driving in the opposite direction, zooms past. Vivian does a double take, and there’s an abrupt cut to a slick black Thunderbird reversing away from the camera, leaving plumes of smoke in its wake. As Cay’s car levels with Frances’s (in another overlay of lateral movement across the frame), we see Cay in close-up for the first time: Sporting aviator sunglasses and a popped denim collar, with ’80s hair recalling the outré ’60s, she cuts a figure that echoes James Dean and prefigures Thelma and Louise and Kristen Stewart but is far more dashing than any of them. Played by the resplendent Patricia Charbonneau, Cay, if occasionally prone to melodrama, is the emotional register of the film. Her slow courtship of Helen Shaver’s tremulous Vivian—orchestrated in intimate conversations and lingering glances typical of sublimated queer yearning—eventually culminates in a five-minute sex scene that shocks with its erotic force but never veers into the explicit territory of its new-millennium counterparts (witness the Olympian contortions of Blue Is the Warmest Color [2013]).

If anything, the love scene in Desert Hearts more closely resembles that of Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle (1974), which is arguably the only previous feature film by a lesbian director portraying a lesbian relationship. But Desert Hearts, astonishingly, brought such a depiction to the mainstream audiences of thirty years ago. Despite having received some negative (and frustratingly reductive) reviews—most notably Vincent Canby’s indictment in the New York Times, which, in deriding the screenplay for making “perfectly credible situations seem unreal,” appeared to reflect the critic’s own inability to conceive of female same-sex desire—the film grossed more than a million dollars at the box office. Its achievement lay precisely in its unreality, in its crafty appropriation of the Hollywood simulacrum as a vessel for gay content. And if Desert Hearts reached an unprecedented popular audience, it was also momentous within the queer-film canon, as a rare positive representation of homosexuality when such relationships, up to that point, had been cast in a sordid or moralizing light, with the offending deviants characterized as psychologically confused or tragically doomed. Although Desert Hearts doesn’t quite concede to a happily-ever-after when, in the elliptical ending, Cay agrees to join the departing Vivian on her train to the next station, we have the sense that everything is only just beginning.

Desert Hearts will be released by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray on November 14.

Jackie Neudorf is an associate editor of Artforum.