In the late 1950s Vivian, an apparently stuffy English professor from New York, moves to Reno to establish residency long enough to get a divorce. She can’t quite put her finger on what is wrong with her marriage, giving vague explanations like, “we were a professional couple,” and “it drowned in still waters.” Sharply contrasted with Vivian is the younger Cay, an artist who lives on the grounds of the guest ranch where Vivian is staying. Cay drives recklessly and wears her heart on her sleeve…a heart that is openly devoted to loving women. This probably would have been a problem anyway in the 1950s, but is especially frowned upon by Cay’s stepmother Frances, who owns the ranch.

So why then am I counting Desert Hearts as a comfort movie? It’s just one of those movies that gives me inspiration to take chances. I have often found that when a director shows up in a cameo, he or she will impart some pithy wisdom; in this case, director Donna Deitch appears briefly as a gambler at the casino where Cay works so that she can shrug and say, “if you don’t play, you can’t win.” And that is the whole point of the film. Cay has had mostly shallow relationships, it is implied, but she risks her relationship with Frances to go after Vivian. Vivian has made a huge life choice to change everything for a vague future, with the added bonus that she finds passion for perhaps the first time in her strictly intellectual life. If the romance isn’t tied up neatly at the end, if the ending is ambiguous, at least no one is attacked or sent to jail, and it’s as likely as not that Vivian and Cay live happily ever after. As likely as it is for any movie couple, anyway. I always wonder what actually happens to people who fall madly in love in the movies, especially when the romance happens during a difficult time in the characters’ lives.

Besides, Desert Hearts has beautiful scenery, great mid century fashion and design, and the my favorite soundtrack ever. Plus, as with most of the movies I’ve been featuring this month, almost every line of dialogue is memorable and quotable.

It’s ironic that most of the best lines are spoken by Frances, who is the closest thing there is to a villain here. She pretends to be laid back and accepting, saying things such as, “I suppose we’d all put in for a new past if we could.” She’s a hypocrite who admits to having lived outside of marriage with Cay’s father, and provides a service helping other people get out of their marriages. Frances rolls her eyes at Cay’s relationships until Vivian comes along, but basically makes Cay choose between her familial love and being with Vivian because she knows Cay is going to leave home once she meets someone she is serious about. The saddest part of the film is their final meeting. Frances says, I guess that’s it.” Cay says, “I’ve known you longer than anyone in my life,” to which Frances says, “meaning?” And Cay says, “that’ll never be it.”

But it’s important to remember that everyone everywhere is a hypocrite, not just Frances.

You can hear me sing He’ll Have To Go on my husband’s Singsnap account here:

And you can play almost the entire soundtrack on the playlist I’ve compiled here:

That was pretty much the first thing I did on Spotify ever. I think the only thing missing is the original song written for the film and sung by Cay’s friend and former lover Silver, “I’m Looking For Someone To Love.” Fortunately it’s on YouTube: