At Heaven’s Gate
London’s BFI has just started an extended run of Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Many will remember it as one of the biggest financial flops in film history. It caused the insolvency of United Artists and the final conclusion of Hollywood’s auteur period.
I love this film. Since I saw it first in a restored version in 1985, I have seen it several times. It is the last scene, for which I have seen the film again and again. It grasped the pain of lost opportunities, mistakes, broken dreams, and lost love. The lost love is not the first love of the male protagonist played by Krist Kristoffersen, because she is sitting there with him on a yacht. A nice yacht, modern with the pumping noise of the steam engine. Outside, the sky is red. It could be a wonderful sunset, but it a deep painful red. His love was the whore he shared with other men. She, the businesswoman, has died in his arms in a dress as white as one would never wear for a dusty journey unless in a Hollywood movie. A white which will let look the red of the blood more painful, a white which still illustrates here innocence as she represents the American Dream. She didn’t make differences between people as long as they paid and she didn’t believe that others would make such differences.
The structure of Heaven’s Gate is very close to Cimino’s Deer Hunter. After showing the main characters in their youth with their untamed strength and fearlessness he confronts them with the reality out there. Maybe it might have been a shock in 1980 that the bad reality was not the distant Vietnam, but the own country. The American dream of welcoming everyone, giving everyone the opportunity is not even quoted anymore. Instead ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is a story about survival and class war. It is almost a story of genocide and in one scene, Christopher Walken walks through a sleeping room packed with East European emigrants which resemble those rooms of Concentration Camps 50 years later. So, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ seems to be rather a European affair.
In addition, not everything is explained or only at a later point in time. Kris Kristoffersen’s character’s relation to his university love is only indicated by the photo on his bedside table and the last scene. We can only guess why he does not ask to marry Isabell Huppert’s character, the owner of the brothel. Is it class?
And in addition to the obscure elements of the story, there are dust clouds and smoke of pipes everywhere. Even characters disappear in the dust clouds at times. But the absorbing images are deeply atmospheric and beautiful and so are the huge landscapes with their very moody cloud architecture.
Many critics today try to rehabilitate the film but still insist that it is not a masterpiece. Well, I think it is a masterpiece and surely it is the one film worth to watch the film class in 1980.