There's a very strong case to be made that James Gray is becoming the greatest contemporary American director most folk haven't heard of: a filmmaker working in the classic Hollywood genre tradition of melodrama and crime movies and aiming at a more mature, adult audience, but born a quarter century too late to receive his due from a bottom-line-oriented City of Angels; a filmmaker critics swoon over all over the world but whose films are barely released in his own native country.
Only his fifth feature in a 20-year career spent mostly working on the independent side of the industry, The Immigrant was partly financed by French production and distribution powerhouse Wild Bunch and premiered in competition at Cannes, where it received a rapturous welcome from many European critics but was also dismissed as a "so what" proposition by many others. Not surprisingly: the new film is openly patterned as an old-fashioned period melodrama and, as such, looks, on paper, a very self-conscious attempt to fulfill the expectations the admirers have for Mr. Gray. And, yet, unlike his previous and somewhat disappointing Two Lovers, The Immigrant is probably the director's first truly outstanding film, despite the excellent result of his mob films The Yards and We Own the Night; the closest Mr. Gray has come to what many describe him as, and the more comfortable he feels within that as well.
Set in 1921 New York under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the tale sees immigrant Ewa Cybulska (a self-sacrificial Marion Cotillard), separated from her sick sister and left to her own devices upon arrival to Ellis Island, saved from being repatriated to her Polish homeland by the intervention of Bruno Weiss (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix, in the film's most nuanced, troubling performance). He is up to no good, as one would expect, and that no good is having her work as a prostitute in one of the many underground saloons in these times of Prohibition, but there's more to it as well, as it becomes clear when Bruno's cousin, magician Emil aka "Orlando" (Jeremy Renner), enters the picture.
The love triangle between Ewa, Bruno and Emil becomes the centre of this unabashedly melodramatic plot, to which Mr. Gray applies an equally unabashed operatic, hyper-romantic treatment, treading without stumbling the very thin line between seriousness and levity. It is, however, an operatic, hyper-romantic approach twice removed, as seen first through the filters of cinema itself and, second, specifically through the filter of post-modern, 1970s American cinema. On one hand, the deliberately stately pace of Mr. Gray's portentous yet elegant camera movements and Darius Khondji's muted, feathered palette suggest an amber-hued take on the 1970s return to classic Hollywood as seen in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather or Peter Bogdanovich's work. (More on this later.) On the other, the attention to period detail and dramatic arc suggests as well the epic, slice-of-life feel of Sergio Leone's grandiose testament Once Upon a Time in America (visible, for instance, in Christopher Spelman's very Morricone score) or the sweepingly romantic stylings of Luchino Visconti.
But the disappointed, disaffected impossibility of a traditional happy ending in a story that deliberately turns the myth of the American dream inside out sets The Immigrant squarely in the sequence of the post-studio "new Hollywood" of the 1970s and its twisting deconstructions of classic genres. It's, in short, a melodrama fully cognizant of its desire to recapture a certain type of Hollywood film and also of its practical impossibility; it aims for a high wire act that, to Mr. Gray's credit, it successfully and brilliantly pulls off, by being at the same time classic and modern, wide-eyed and cynical, and above all always, always sincere.
It's the closest that Mr. Gray has come to the best work of one of the key directors of 1970s American cinema, Martin Scorsese, who has been an inexplicably intangible absence/presence in his work: the film of a virtuoso, romantic cinephile seeking the purest cinematic translation of raw emotion and classical storytelling. And, in doing so, Mr. Gray has come the closest both to his talent and to what people have always wished him to be. A tricky balancing act, magically achieved, and a simply great movie.
France, USA 2013
Cast Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Director James Gray; screenwriters Mr. Gray and Richard Menello; cinematographer Darius Khondji (colour, widescreen); composer Christopher Spelman; designer Happy Massee; costumes Patricia Norris; editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter; producers Greg Shapiro, Christopher Woodrow, Anthony Katagas and Mr. Gray; production companies Wild Bunch, Worldview Entertainment, Keep Your Head and Kingsgate Films
Screened July 15th 2014, NOS Alvalaxia 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)