A strangely chimeric movie, that only reveals its truest colors in its closing moments, James Gray’s “The Immigrant” which screened In Competition this morning in Cannes is a meticulous reframing of the director’s familiar themes and concerns that mostly lived up to our high expectations, while never bursting their bounds the way we might have dared to hope. 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. In fact, in some ways the apparent sprawling ambition of the exercise (Ellis Island! Immigration! The great Untold American Story!) is misleading because while draped in Darius Khondji’s luxuriant, golden-hued cinematography like the silks of Lady Liberty’s gown, and decked in loving period costume and detail, the film is really a small-scale human drama in which those Gray staples, a love triangle and a love/hate brother-esque relationship, play out beat by minutely observed beat. Many will consider it simply too slow to invest in, and it does play out at a certain emotional remove, but it worked on us in the same way the best of the director’s previous work did: Gray’s films have always been ones that access the heart circuituously, via the mind.
Aside from the period setting, the film’s chief point of differentiation from Gray’s previous outings is its focus on its leading lady, Marion Cotillard. Gray has clearly found in her a kind of muse, with the camera lingering on her face in close up in much the way it might have done with Garbo in one of her silents, and Cotillard, in both her expressiveness and restraint as well as her shimmering loveliness, is so precise in this role it’s really impossible to imagine anyone else who could wrangle its intricacies. It’s vital that she’s as good as she is, because the story requires her to exert the kind of pull that might have men prepared to ruin themselves after just a glimpse of her — arguably also a central theme of “Two Lovers” but more persuasively sold here because of Cotillard’s alluring aura of unknowability, even while she’s entirely engaged (Of course she also benefits from far more screen time here than Gwyneth Paltrow in “Two Lovers” so it’s probably an unfair comparison).
Ewa (Cotillard) and her sister Magda arrive at Ellis Island after a long voyage from Poland, during which Magda was sick with TB, and Ewa, according to the officials, engaged in some kind of “fallen woman” behaviour. We later discover the truth of that event, but the sisters are split up with Magda hospitalized on the island and Ewa threatened with deportation, before Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) shows up and buys and bribes her way to New York. Her circumstances desperate, and determined to buy her sister’s way out of the hospital, Ewa is coerced into prostitution by Bruno, before she meets Emil (Jeremy Renner) Bruno’s estranged cousin, who falls for her and offers her the possibility of escape.
It’s a melodrama, undoubtedly, not as florid or overwrought as the term “women’s picture” might conjure up, but nonetheless more interested in a woman’s emotional journey than any of Gray’s previous films have been. Ewa starts off naïve and wounded, hardens against Bruno’s insistent, covetous obsession, softens toward Emil, and finally finds the wisdom in forgiving others and herself. But what’s most surprising is that while it’s Ewa’s arc that occupies most of our attention, the narrative pulls a skillful bait-and-switch on us in such a way that by the end it feels more like Bruno’s story.
Which brings us to Joaquin Phoenix. If Cotillard is the new news here, Phoenix is still, in his fourth collaboration with Gray, the ace up the film’s sleeve. He and Renner both may cede center stage to Cotillard, but when it comes time and when the story demands it, he is just so terrifically good that you find yourself reframing your entire experience of the film around him. His final scene is the most emotionally satisfying ending the film could possibly have achieved, all the more resonant for being the outcome of a shift so dextrous we didn’t really notice it was happening. Renner, about whom we had our worries initially, has a smaller role that we’d imagined; and while his style is lighter and less anchored to tragic darkness than that of Cotillard or Phoenix, in a strange way it works as a counterpoint. Renner feels contemporary, despite the mustache and hair pomade, and when he’s around he normalizes a story that might threaten to go too operatic otherwise. We’re not sure any of that was intentional, or even wholly successful, but it’s certainly interesting.
With the focus so tightly on the three principals (and really more just on the lead two) there are times when the film feels a little airless, and despite the local color there is little social context and few generalized insights into the immigrant experience to be had. And again, we warn you, it moves slowly, carefully, step-by-step. But Gray is a filmmaker we love, and all the best qualities of his intelligent style are here in abundance. Sometimes we feel like that self-same intelligence can constrain him from relinquishing just a little of his self-control and coloring outside the lines, though, and so it feels here. “The Immigrant” is contained, restrained, thoughtful filmmaking that satisfies on nearly every level, except for the desire for a little chaos. [B+]