Cannes 2013. Dialogues: James Gray's "The Immigrant"

Adam Cook & Daniel Kasman discuss James Gray's "The Immigrant", a departure in many ways for one of America's great contemporary filmmakers.
Daniel Kasman, Adam Cook



ADAM COOK: With The Immigrant, James Gray takes a considerable turn from his previous work. His filmography has been dominated by male characters, intricate family relations, and operatic melodrama. Here we have a female protagonist alone in America (Marion Cotillard), separated from her family, with a completely different approach to the dramatic trajectory of the film. The result gives one pause: Gray is moving towards something new. More than anything else, it's exciting to try and articulate just what that something new is.

DANIEL KASMAN: The world has the same feeling—hushed, intimate, burnished by time and histories of emotion—but you are right, the focus is subtly very different, and it changes nearly everything. For one, Joaquin Phoenix who was so integral to Gray's previous three films that the mise en scène could not be separated from his body and his intensity, is now a supporting character to Cotillard's Polish immigrant. She gives a tremendous performance of such similar total commitment to Gray's world of feeling that she is now inextricable from the sets, the time, the tone. The way Gray would direct Phoenix's previous performances, of a sullen, nearly mumbling intensity of anguish and soulfulness, is completely different here. Phoenix plays an ambiguous figure who helps Cotillard conquer the American immigrant bureaucracy of Ellis Island and then draws her into prostitution in New York's Lower East Side, motivated by her desire to pay for the medical and travel expenses of her sister, who is trapped in quarantine on the island. Phoenix's performance has none of the centrality or quiet bravura as those in the past—except in a series of key story climaxes—and instead is nearly featureless, a lumpen tenement middleman pimp, hustling his women from a neighborhood vaudeville show to the audience's paying clientele, pitched somewhere between a mystery (Cotillard nearly immediately tells him, fierce-eyed, she doesn't trust him) and a barely charismatic slouch. He claims to be in love with Cotillard, but that's a story we and she know every pimp tells his new girl. Jeremy Renner is paired with/against Phoenix in typical fashion for the director, who calls upon 1930s Hollywood urban cinema to always have two men, usually brothers in spirit if not in blood (here, cousins), on two sides of a divide. Renner is a charming "pretty boy" vaudeville magician who offers Cotillard eyes filled with infatuation and homily words of American-style hope. Yet his character, like that of Phoenix, has none of the sparkling intensity of the woman, and his ultimate feelings for her, his ribald rivalry with his cousin, his mirthful lightness and inconsequence compared to Phoenix's swarthy-dark, baggy weight, is something not seen or understood fully in the film.

COOK: The dynamics between the characters has a strange ambiguity about it, that, as you suggest, doesn't necessarily get resolved by the end of the film. Unlike Gray's previous films that assert the characteristics of each relationship, often in the first couple scenes, The Immigrant tucks away its intentions from view. Instead of the enveloping emotions and a certain straightforwardness in the presentation of the movie's universe, we're left altogether uncertain of who really feels what and what is developing. As in opera, Gray likes to coat the films' surfaces with feeling, leaving it all out in the open, directing the film at the viewer; but The Immigrant has left us with a lot of the work. We recently saw Claire Denis' Bastards here at the festival, and in a distinct way Gray's new film is just as elliptical. The narrative unfolds in sequence, but with spaces, in between the parts of the story we see, removed. He's keeping his cards close to his chest, and the experience of watching the film is really nothing like anything Gray has done. One always has the sense of creeping devastation in his films, but here, the usual expression of this—peaks and valleys of conflict descending into a fated conclusion—is replaced with a compelling evenness punctuated by abrupt rises. I think this comes, in part, from the more subjective design of the film.

KASMAN: Subjective is the right word—like that chase sequence in We Own the Night, this world seems primarily seen (or put more precisely, enunciated) from one character's point of view. The scope of this first period film is very, very small. Its spare handful of locations seems a limitation of poverty, ethnicity, and foreignness in the big city: you know your tenement, and the few surrounding blocks. Everything else is another world. (When the prostitutes are forced to head "up town" which turns out to mean hooking under bridges in Central Park, the world seems alien and unreal compared to the ragged denseness, the shabby claustrophobia of the Lower East Side. This is, by the way, Gray's first "Manhattan" movie after limiting his settings to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.) Yet even this interpretation doesn't fully explain the film's unusual gaps. For example, Cotillard seems to live in Phoenix's home for some considerable time, but we never see them interact domestically, we see no hint of what their normal day to day relationship is; this is all elided, or perhaps kept in the shadows. This is a story—and period "history"—with no central stage, no spotlight. It's a muted drama seen from a dark corner. The melodrama is in Cotillard's moral outrage, her Catholic guilt and sacrifice of herself for her sister. Gray's is a "gesture" cinema, in the sense that what people do in the world defines themselves as people. Renner and Phoenix throughout are totally a mystery in the drama...until they do something, and suddenly the film is lightning-electric.

COOK: We occupy the same locations as Cotillard. The immigrant experience is not conveyed in some obvious way but through the discovery of, and being resigned to, unfamiliar spaces: Pheonix' apartment, the vaudeville theater, Ellis iIsland—all places of confinement. Even within these settings, we're only privileged to partial representation of the space. In one scene, Cotillard, Pheonix, and the other girls are at a table in a bar. Gray never gives us a complete view of this table or those sitting at it, only glimpses of those relevant to Cotillard's internal drama and external interaction. Very subtly, we feel her alienation, her foreignness. In this cinema of gestures, The Immigrant moves from the grandiose to the miniscule, the incidental. The few big actions within the film come in the late-going, and until we arrive at them we are, in a sense, suspended—then, all of a sudden, lines are drawn, and the effect is powerful. There's less clarity of specifics here than in Gray's other films, but at the same time we are closest than ever to Gray's protagonist—her conflict is the viewer's. In respect to the elliptical nature of the film, it's all about inclusion and exclusion: the omitted domestic living, Cotillard's prostitution, and everyday details. What's left is something in between drama and the mundane, a consistently evolving journey towards a climax that seems to shift what came before it.

KASMAN: "Between the drama and the mundane"— I really like that and think it's true. And potentially frustrating, as it's "giving" even less than Gray's other movies. That being said, when the climaxes occur, you are right, something clicks in the film and all of a sudden ambiguities get hit with a ray of light, we see and understand more. The finale is a stunning version of this, rhyming compositions from key earlier moments either splitting Cotillard and Phoenix apart by frames-within-frames, or simply isolating each in the frame by themselves from another world. Here, at the end, Gray uses this to unite them in a beautiful conceit of moral judgement and grace laid upon their fates. This may sound overly poetic, and what is a bit amusing to me is that on paper The Immigrant sounds like a pre-Code potboiler: fallen dove new to the city oscillates between two men, one dark, the other light. Renner's odd character reminded me of a combination of James Cagney's stocky agility, a sense of dance, but also, dangerously, with Clark Gable's romantic rapscallion image, with charm to spare but paper-thin promises. Yet he's not nearly as well defined as either, existing like much of the film, somewhere in some middle. The 30s is a touchstone though, even though the film takes place in 1921. Cotillard reminds me so much of Sylvia Sydney, only profoundly sadder. Gray's cinema is so founded in 30s Hollywood cinema: ethnicity, life in the city, the conflict between family and society, a quick-fix American dream vs. older morality. Those stories were the default in those days, a dime a dozen. Now Gray's films seem an anomaly, it seems strange he pinpoints a neighborhood in Brooklyn, that his characters come from specific countries, they have Eastern European accents, eat at home, have large families. (Also unusual, the discretion of the film: fade outs instead of sex, spare bloodshed.) You said something before we started this conversation that I loved, that The Immigrant tells the story before the stories of Gray's other films. There, the ethnic families are already founded, two generations deep, and entrenched in New York's outer, ethnic boroughs. Cotillard's step off Ellis into Manhattan is the first step towards founding these families we'll eventually see in Gray's New York of the 80s, 90s, 00s. There are no families here yet, just false ones, thwarted ones. You immediately understand the old fashioned, tight bonds of the families in The Yards and We Own the Night when you see the supreme isolation and forlornness of Cotillard's existence. She seems to be held in limbo, waiting for life to begin. The final acts that precipitate her new life beginning—the world's context and the acts within it that release her to truly begin a life in America—may be, in a general sense, what the movie is about.

COOKThe Immigrant is an investigation into Gray's own family history, his own films and the obsessions therein. In this way, it's his most personal work to date, and I expect will be seen as a key turning point in his oeuvre when we're looking back from the future. All of his films interact in meaningful ways but The Immigrant expands and complicates the intricacies that bind them. They are subtly accumulating a portrait of American society, one told through intimate looks at underrepresented communities with a rare level of care for the individuals, their struggles and the sacrifices that form it.

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