LOVE'S A GAMBLE, like they say, but you don't need a straight flush to win. "Desert Hearts," an erratic, erotic comedy set in Reno, finds the odds are even for gay risk-takers, too.

But "Hearts," a love story told for women by women, is too exclusive and too inbred to make this low-budget romance accessible to everyone. And maybe that's not the intent of director Donna Deitch in this adaptation of the novel "Desert of the Heart," which has self-discovery through sexuality as its rather limited point of view.

Audra Lindley, a honey-gold, freckle-faced elderly blond beauty, plays the owner of a Nevada dude ranch frequented by soon-to-be divorcees in the late '50s. Cokes and chorusing crickets and country philosophy make the time go by as the women wait out their six-week sentences for quickie splits.

Lindley's surrogate daughter, a coltish, sexy, aggressive young lesbian, also entertains them in her way. Ingenue Patricia Charbonneau, like a reincarnated Natalie Wood, has a rakish grace, a gangly persuasiveness in this, her second film part.

But "Hearts" is basically a coming-out party for another character, an uptight, 35-year-old professor of literature who befriends and is bedded by the dashing young Charbonneau. The professor, as played by Canada's Helen Shaver, is overly mannered, tense, prissy and absurdly prim. Set against this good ol' girl's version of the wild west, she's like Miss Manners seduced at a rodeo.

The actors don't have a prayer, playing shadowy, half-formed males padding about the ranches and the casinos, pining after the leading lesbians, bemoaning their fate. One wistful ranch hand wonders "How do you get all that traffic without equipment?" as another satisfied showgirl leaves Charbonneau's bedroom. You can almost see the writer smirking.

Natalie Cooper, author of this arch adaptation, does pen some snappy comebacks and brittle, literate laughs. But her women are insufferably bitchy and as flimsy as the motivations that prompt them.

And what with Charbonneau and Shaver looking so longingly, there are more pregnant pauses than at a maternity hospital for wayward rabbits. When consummation finally occurs, the lovers make up for lost time with one of the sweatiest interludes since the discovery of plastic seatcovers.

Given the low budget, there was no money for transitions or fancy wideshots, so the look is strangled, stranded and somehow like stagework. All the same, if you are a woman who loves women, you will no doubt love "Desert Hearts." But it doesn't seem a good bet to cross over.

DESERT HEARTS (R) -- At the West End Circle.