Disappointment with too few showstoppers has been a common complaint at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend (mostly by privileged film critics and Oscar bloggers wanting more sizzle). Each year, Telluride sneaks a few surprise films not listed on the official line-up and generally of marquee value (last year, “Butter” was one of the big contenders). This year, the only not-so-secret surprise was Ben Affleck’s entertaining thriller “Argo.” While a terrific suspense film, only one surprise left many pundits wanting more.
Well, it turns out there was one small extra surprise, albeit just a small tease, but one that whet our appetite for what is one of our most anticipated films of 2013: James Gray’s next feature length film, once known as “Lowlife.” During Sunday’s tribute to Marion Cotillard (Telluride screened the superb “Rust And Bone“), organizers announced the surprise appearance of James Gray and the director revealed a snippet of the film now titled “Nightingale” starring Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner.
“Well, it was originally written as ‘Lowlife,’ ” Gray explained, “But the author of the novel threatened to sue me. So now I’m calling it ‘The Nightingale’ which is justified by the text in the movie.” Gray joked that others (Harvey Weinstein perhaps?) had different ideas about the title. “All kinds of people are fighting over which title we use,” he said wrly. “I will win, but it’s just a question of time.”
Set in the 1920s, the film stars Cotillard as Sonya, one of two immigrant sisters who travel to New York, only to see the other sister become deathly ill. In order to help her, Cotillard heads down a dark path where she sells herself for money and medicine, eventually falling for a charming magician (Renner), the cousin of the sleaze who keeps her turning tricks (Phoenix).
While clearly not completely color timed yet, the five minute teaser of “Nightingale,” featured the incredible textured and shadow-heavy work of DP Darius Khondji. Showing off a sequence in a church in New York’s Lower East Side, “Nightingale” is Gray’s most overt period-piece (“We Own The Night” was set in the 1980s), but looks as moody, atmospheric and sombre as his previous pictures, this time strengthened by some incredible art direction and, at least in this scene, the solemn religious iconography.
In the scene, Marion Cotillard’s prostitute character Sonya is in church praying, and then takes a confessional. “I’m ashamed,” she said through weepy tears and a tattered black shawl, before launching into all her crimes and misdemeanors: lying, theft of food, her rape, and ultimately the revelation that she’s been whoring herself out to help pay and take care of her sick sister.
Having just come off the boat from Poland a few months previously coming to the American promised land, it appears that Sonya’s dream of a better life is actually worse than she can imagine. “We were caged like animals,” Cotilard said about the voyage on a ship to North America. Her rape was public knowledge on the boat and she says she’s damaged goods, hence having to prostitute herself.
Seemingly waiting to exploit her when she got off the boat is her pimp, Joaquin Phoenix, who in this scene, surreptitiously follows her into the church and eavesdrops on her confession. Renner’s character didn’t feature in what felt like it was probably a scene from early on in the movie.
While brief, it was a tantalizing teaser of what’s to come, and given that Gray’s previous films, which include “The Yards,” “We Own The Night” and “Two Lovers” (all of which starred Phoenix), only seem to grow in power, and critical stature, over time, it’s clearly one of the pictures we’re mostly looking forward to in 2013. “Nightingale,” will arrive in theaters sometime in 2013 via the Weinstein Company. Our guess would be sometime during the Oscar season, with a stop over in Cannes in May more than likely. Stay tuned for more from the Cotillard tribute, and from Telluride, very soon.