Heaven’s Gate (1980) has just been rereleased in France in an extended version. At a screening at the Pompidou Centre, the film is introduced by its director, Michael Cimino, and its lead actress, Isabelle Huppert. Cimino resembles a thin, sweet and very stylish old lady in his unisex cowboy shirt. Tenderly arm- in-arm on the Pompidou stage, the pair recall their meeting and the extent to which Huppert’s casting flew in the face of big-studio thinking: “Every actress in the world wanted to play this role,” says Cimino. “I held a casting in New York, but no one convinced me. To get a new perspective I went to a cinema that was showing Claude Chabrol’s Violette Nozière (1978) and suddenly I saw my character, Ella – Isabelle Huppert.” The battle to impose this unknown on Hollywood took months, during which Huppert learned to do stunts on horseback, to dance on rollerskates (“Oh, I had a plenty of time!”) and to observe the life of a madam in an Idaho brothel.
The character Ella, a young brothel madam, is in love with two men (Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken) – two ideals of masculinity of whom it is easy to say that the one desires the other through her. It’s a pre-Brokeback Mountain (2005) reading of the film that Cimino rejects, preferring to see in his western the experience of class struggle in America, of fascism and racism in a democracy. It was these themes, he contends, which so rubbed up against American sensibilities at the time, and contributed to the film’s disastrous flop.
The film in its restored form is literally dizzying. Three hours and 36 waltzing minutes, on horseback, on skates and by stagecoach, set to a heady music played in triple time. It’s genuinely a western and running at full tilt, but that doesn’t prevent a few too-long scenes, of which some seem
more the product of capriciousness than of genius (especially the final scene, on a particularly cardboard- looking yacht). One can imagine the enormous spinning ego of a director who could do exactly what he wanted to, with all the money and time that he needed. Yet Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin were no less vain and were not pilloried in the same way.
Cimino has become the sainted martyr of New Hollywood, after long having been marked out as its gravedigger. Martin Scorsese (quoted by Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, 1998) said that ‘Heaven’s Gate undercut all of us. I knew at the time it was the end of something, that something had died… The studios were outraged… So they took the control back.’ The gates of heaven slammed shut.
There remain some marvellous images: Wyoming in the spring; the body of Huppert (rarely so magnified); and, like a sumptuous nightmare, rape and murder. “It’s not like the Indians. You can’t just kill them all,” one of the cowboys says regretfully on the subject of East European immigrants. We see this horseman of the apocalypse engulfed in clouds of steam from a train – and this one, unforgettable image is enough to explain the cult around this cursed film.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.