By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 24, 2013 at 6:27AM
Moments after leaving an early morning press screening of James Gray's "The Immigrant" in the final stretches of the Cannes Film Festival, I immediately encountered two extreme perspectives on the movie. Conversing with a pair of knowledgable cinephiles, one extolled the classical virtues of director James Grey's swooning tale, which finds Marion Cotillard playing a Polish immigrant pulled into prostitution by scheming showman Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). Set in 1921, the elegant period piece reminded this man of no less than Elia Kazan's grimy New York dramas. But that was only one reaction. Another viewer called it a cheap imitation that benefited from Cotillard's investment in her tragic role, but suffered from a melodramatic Phoenix performance and an equally preachy score.
In my estimation, they're both right.
Gray's fifth directorial effort is a conflicting experience admirable and powerfully executed in parts, cold and meandering in others. The great cinematographer Darius Khondji (whose recent credits include "Amour" and "To Rome With Love") captures the era in magnificent golden hues and deep shadows that are particularly effective at making Ellis Island come alive early in the movie. When Cotillard's doe-eyed character Ewa gets pulled from her ailing sister as they prepare to disembark in Poland, she arrives in New York flustered and directionless, a state of mind at odds with the building's stately interiors. The contrast between her continually dire state and the lavish beauty of New York at the turn of the twentieth century provides the movie with a running visual motif that sustains it throughout, but also has a tendency to feel dry.
At first Ewa's plight is fairly straightforward. Rescued from deportation by Bruno at the last minute, she's quickly subjected to his money-grubbing routine, dressed up in an exaggerated cabaret outfit to resemble the Statue of Liberty and eventually pimping her out at a ramshackle vaudeville theater in New York's seedy Lower East Side. But when Ewa manages to escape and find her relatives in Brooklyn, "The Immigrant" complicates its story by putting her struggle in an increasingly greater context. Cotillard makes the best out of an underwritten character, her sullen demeanor occasionally charged by outbursts of frustration when she discovers that she's truly alone -- and desperate enough to remain susceptible to several unspoken agendas.
Though Ewa herself is a woefully underwritten character, Gray's screenplay (co-written by Ric Menello) does a fine job of exploring the fantasy involved in seeking easy catharsis from lower class struggles. Frustrated by her enslavement by Bruno, Ewa gravitates toward his seemingly kindhearted cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician whose attraction to Ewa leads him to promise her salvation. But when the tension between these two men finally comes to a head, it arrives with an unsatisfying thud, as does a lot of the plot's ongoing developments. Per usual, Gray has more success with the cultivation of atmosphere than narrative, which is an issue in a movie that has so much of it.
Both in terms of production volume and themes, "The Immigrant" falls more in line with Gray's moody police drama "We Own the Night" than his tender, low key romance "Two Lovers," but it combines both the strengths and weakness of those two features. While rendered on a grand scale, "The Immigrant" contains a fairly intimate story the anguished victims of America's melting pot. It translates the iconography of Ellis Island and the New York City memorialized in literature from the time with impressive élan, but often suffers for the same reason -- by imitating the model for emotionally wrenching storytelling, "The Immigrant" often feels overwrought and veers into histrionics, even though it works well when avoiding those extremes.
So it should come as no surprise that many people processed "The Immigrant" in different ways. As more audience members filed out of the screening room at Cannes and gathered to unload their thoughts, reactions were all over the place. Gray, whose small but ambitious oeuvre has never gained much traction in his native country but enjoyed steady interest in France, might be one of the most curious American filmmakers whose work displays a sincere approach to popular genre tropes. Due to his cautious application of tone and refined formalism, Gray has few contemporaries but plenty of precedents; like Paul Thomas Anderson, he reaches so hard for a level of greatness that a different era of moviemaking that it's impossible not to get swept up in the task with him.
To wit: The final shot of "The Immigrant" reveals a pair of frames-within-a-frame that epitomizes the director's outstanding appreciation for mise-en-scene. In this case, the image conveys the dual nature of his character's lives, particular the oppression and resistance that define their every move. But it also encapsulates the nature of the movie itself as it begins a life no doubt defined by a wide variety of reactions, all of which confirm Gray's ability to make work that's worthy of discussion.
Criticwire grade: B+