A pair of films addressing very different aspects of the American experience, and set 92 years apart, have screened in Competition over the last couple of days: Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.” Sad to say, I had expectations for both but didn’t engage with either, although admittedly my perceptions may be tainted by the cumulative effects of a nine-day onslaught of early morning screenings and inevitable late nights. Festival fatigue has arrived!
While they exist on opposing ends of the spectrum in terms of genre, tone and narrative ambition, both films do depict, in their own ways, an
America that’s dog eat dog, money-obsessed and not especially harmonic despite
any surface niceties expressed or warm embraces offered.
The lead character in
“The Immigrant” (Marion Cotillard) is trying to survive in a new world, and ends
up trying to make money or steal it. At one point she even says with a
heretofore unseen ferocity, “I love money!” Cotillard plays Eva, a Polish
woman freshly arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 who is separated from her
tubercular sister and falls into the clutches of Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno, a
Jewish pimp running a prostitution ring off the back of his ‘mistresses of the
world’ variety show. Cotillard’s Eva quickly learns what’s important for
surviving and profiteering in America.
In “Nebraska,” spaced-out boozer Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is
convinced that his junk-mail sweepstakes letter saying he’s won $1 million is genuine,
and after trying to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska himself, sets out on a road trip
with his hangdog son David (Will Forte) to collect the prize. A detour into
Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, brings out the greed motive among
several members of his extended family and former business partner (Stacy
Keach), all dropping strong hints that he should share his good fortune.
While that’s not uniquely American, just human, there were
moments in Nebraska where I just felt the film veering into condescension
towards its small-town characters. Working for the first time from a script he
didn’t write, Payne, who also shot in black and white to foster a mood of
economic decline and social malaise, often casts locals in his films and does
But the lives portrayed in Nebraska are as barren as the plains
state’s landscapes, with conversations limited to hellos, goodbyes and “What car
do you drive?”, and family reunions that mostly involve vacant staring at the
television. David’s parents (including “About Schmidt” actress June Squibb as his
angry, plain-speaking mother), meanwhile, can hardly stand each other – but
like so much of Nebraska, it’s yet another shallow detail that doesn’t amount
to much. I did like Dern, though, and you can always count on Payne to hit the
comic mark on several occasions.
While neither offer a compelling milieu, Gray’s unconvincing miserablist epic does at least get a significant lift from Darius
Khondji’s exquisite, sepia-tinged photography. The final shot in “The Immigrant”
is to die for, and there are many more leading up to that moment that also
ravish the eyes. The same can be said for Cotillard, one of the most facially
expressive and beautiful actresses working today. You can admire her level of
commitment as Eva in “The Immigrant”; she speaks Polish like a native. But
I’m afraid Gray has let Cotillard down, in that he hasn’t guided her
performance in the way that, say, Olivier Dahan did in “La Vie En Rose,” or even
Jacques Audiard in “Rust And Bone.” I never felt that I had a firm grip on who Eva
was, and some of Gray’s creative decisions regarding where to swell the
saccharine score and frame the close-ups almost felt like something you’d see
on Funny Or Die, a spoof on how to manufacture an Oscar-winning performance.
The script, in general, was undermined throughout by clunky, expositional
dialogue. Jeremy Renner was unconvincing as a street-smart magician;
his adversarial face-off with Phoenix for Eva’s affections never generates any
I will revisit “Nebraska” down the line with a
fresher pair of eyes. “The Immigrant,” on the other hand, I’m confident will not be making my Top 10 of 2013 list.
A Cannes review round-up of “Nebraska” is here; ‘The Immigrant” early reviews are below:
James Gray has come to Cannes with a gloomy and baffling
period drama set in 1920s New York among the huddled masses yearning to be free
in the new world. It begins promisingly enough. In the first half-hour, The
Immigrant looks like a subdued, complex and intriguing drama with Marion
Cotillard holding centre stage as Ewa, the scared young Polish woman, just off
the boat, who must do what she can to survive.
But the movie becomes a bizarre tragi-melodrama on a single
plaintive note of despair: sluggish, at times entirely implausible, and trapped
in its own Stygian gloom as the sad-eyed Ewa gets involved with Bruno (Joaquin
Phoenix), the MC of a saucy burlesque show, and his cousin, the twinkly-eyed
stage magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner).
The emotional and moral price of the immigrant experience,
circa 1921 in New York, is expressed in quietly wrenching terms in The
Immigrant, James Gray’s sensitively observed melodrama about a Polish woman
forced to run a gauntlet of degrading experiences to secure a foothold in the
Scratch the good-looking, emotionally charged surface of
James Gray’s period take on the love triangle theme he has already explored in
Two Lovers and you find a rather stagey melodrama with religious overtones. Set
in early 1920s New York, this story of a Polish immigrant who is dragged into a
demi-monde of prostitution and burlesque shows by a pimp with a heart of gold
moves along briskly enough; but in dramatic terms, we’re on the outside looking
in, admiring Marion Cotillard’s full-on performance as Ewa, an innocent
besmirched, while never really being engaged by a story so old-school that we
half expect to see it narrated via intertitles.
Cementing himself as the great classicist of his generation,
James Gray turns back the clock to 1921 in “The Immigrant,” a romantic tale
that cuts to the very soul of the American experience. This rich, beautifully
rendered film boasts an arrestingly soulful performance from Marion Cotillard
as a Polish nurse-turned-prostitute for whom the symbolic promise of Ellis
Island presents only hardship. Her travails unfold at a pace that will
frustrate today’s attention-deficit audiences.
It’s a beautifully shot film marked by deeply felt
performances from its leads, that will play to those attuned to the loveliness
of Gray’s minor-key redemption stories, but is unlikely to win new converts
among the impatient or those whose expectation of a period drama is something
more traditionally epic and grandiose.