While waiting in one of the many interminable lines at the Cannes Film Festival, I struck up a conversation with a contributor to Cahiers du cinéma, France’s best-known film magazine. “I’m particularly looking forward to James Gray’s The Immigrant, ” he remarked. Rather self-deprecatingly, he added, “But then, of course, I’m French.”
Like Jerry Lewis, Gray, a director known for—among other films—The Yards, We Own the Night, and Two Lovers, has long received a much more sympathetic reception from critics in France than in the United States. (On Thursday, Lewis was feted on stage in Cannes at a screening of Daniel Noah’s Max Rose, a new film in which he has the starring role.) Although Gray’s films often star well-known actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Wahlberg, and especially Joaquin Phoenix (The Immigrant is Phoenix’s fourth collaboration with Gray), he barely registers as a Hollywood contender on most American filmgoers’ radar. Even Conversations With James Gray, edited by The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer and the only major book on the director in English, was published in France.
Although The Immigrant, which premiered at Cannes on Friday, may not make Gray a household name in the U.S., this bleak saga of a Polish immigrant’s disillusionment with the American dream, is certainly one of the strongest films to be featured in this year’s Competition. The narrative has a straightforward, classical resonance and it’s for good reason that some critics have already compared it to films like Elia Kazan’s America, America and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.
Upon arrival at Ellis Island in 1921, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda are targeted for possible expulsion by the immigration authorities: Magda’s tuberculosis and rumors that Ewa is a “woman of loose morals” make them suspect. While Magda remains quarantined, Ewa benefits from the calculating beneficence of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming operator who pays off a naturalization officer to escort her to shore. He soon employs his new houseguest as a dancer in his burlesque theater and eventually pimps her out to select clients. Possible redemption comes in the form of Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician determined to save Ewa from a live of privation.
The Immigrant is far from a conventionally naturalistic historical film. Gray has remarked that he was inspired by classical melodrama and opera and is clearly trying to achieve the emotional intensity of a fable while still evoking the grittiness of Manhattan in the early twentieth century. The performances, moreover, are remarkable. Phoenix conveys the ambiguities of his character with great finesse. It’s easy to believe that he’s simultaneously a facile charmer and a sleazy exploiter. And Cotillard should certainly be in the running for the festival’s Best Actress Award. Her face—a vehicle for conveying the shock that sets in once she learns that American idealism is largely a sham—possesses a plasticity reminiscent of the best silent actresses.