"Heaven's Gate is something quite rare in movies these days – an unqualified disaster," The New York Times sneered when Michael Cimino's folie de grandeur was first released in 1980. That is not how its French star Isabelle Huppert sees it. Huppert (speaking from Australia where she is currently appearing alongside Cate Blanchett in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Jean Genet's The Maids) defends Heaven's Gate with the same passion that her co-stars (Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges) also show toward Cimino's "cursed" movie
"For everybody, it remains an extraordinary moment of our professional lives," says Huppert, who played bordello owner Ella Watson.
On paper, Heaven's Gate seemed like classic – if very bleak – Western fare. Set in late 19th century Wyoming, it was about homesteaders trying to protect their land from the cattle barons. Cimino's inspiration came from events in the so-called Johnson County War which revealed huge class and ethnic tensions in westward ho America.
Ask Huppert why Heaven's Gate was so disliked and she suggests the "harshness" took US audiences by surprise. "In a way, it was some kind of anti-American movie. You have some idea of America as a land of welcome and a land of freedom. It certainly went against this idea and revealed a darker side to the myth of America as a promised land."
In Heaven's Gate, the homesteaders are rough and dirty immigrants from eastern Europe, many speaking bad English, not the clean-cut John Wayne types we are used to from John Ford films.
The structure of the film didn't help either. "It's not a classical narrative storyline. I remember something struck me after the movie was released," Huppert says. "Michael Cimino kept saying that the movie was to be seen as a dream. There was something illogical about it ... of course, it was very strange for people to watch a movie like this."
The actress dismisses the idea that the violence – the slaughter at the end, the brutal sequence showing the rape of her character – repelled audiences. "You need that violence to see the cruelty of the situations. It's not a soft movie. The movie says certain things about these immigrants being mistreated by the people who are already there."
Huppert's career could have been very different if Heaven's Gate had succeeded.
"You can't now talk about the movie without talking about its very strange destiny. It's within the movie. We all know the movie was not successful and the whole story – its making, the way it was released, its failure and the way it was attacked – defines the movie," she reflects on a film budgeted at $7.5m that eventually cost well over $30m, took a small eternity to make, and was blamed by many for the collapse of United Artists and the end of a golden era in American filmmaking.
Cimino's new, digitally restored director's cut of Heaven's Gate has already received rapturous receptions at the Venice Festival and at the Lumière Festival in Lyons. This is vindication of a sort but Heaven's Gate has always had its admirers, especially among European critics (many of whom liked it so much precisely because it had been so reviled in the US.) That doesn't mean it will ever be a popular success.
"We were aware we were doing something special," Huppert insists 33 years on. "Many great movies are rejected. The public and the critics don't necessarily know it all. The history of literature, of music, of painting, of everything is full of masterpieces being rejected!"
The director's cut of 'Heaven's Gate' is released on 2 August