(James Gray, 2013)
James Gray deserves the same status as the most beloved and acclaimed directors of his generation. In terms of talent, he is right up there alongside the Andersons, for instance, both Paul Thomas and Wes.
He will, however, never be fashionable, you feel. He is a classicist, and there is something serious and sober in his work which is slightly out of step with modern taste.
The Immigrant, perhaps more than any other film, is the fullest expression of that classicism. An old-fashioned melodrama in terms of its plotting, it is muted and quietened by Gray until its passions are deep beneath the surface, only visible in the occasional eruption of violence or raw feeling from its characters.
Gray instead finds much of that feeling in the beautifully haunted eyes of his leading lady. Cotillard has something of the silent movie siren about her, and he is able to locate the pain and longing in that face, which takes up much screentime here.
The story centres on Cotillard's Iwa, a Polish immigrant who arrives with her sister Magda at Ellis Island in 1921. Magda is immediately dragged away, suspected of suffering from tuberculosis, and Iwa is to be deported back to Europe when she is spotted by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who pays off a guard and takes her back to his house. He offers her work, but is gradually revealed to be a pimp, who first takes Iwa on as a dancer in his troupe at a club, then arranges for her to become a prostitute. All this time she is saving money to rescue her sister, and further, brighter hope arrives in the shape of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician who is kind and poetic and takes an instant shine to Iwa.
This is all patiently, calmly paced by Gray, the story moving forth only in increments. But what beautiful, magical increments they are. Shot by Darius Khondji on a relatively low budget, The Immigrant looks ravishing; it's evocation of the tenement world in '20s New York is shocking but utterly compelling. That tenement world is crucial to Gray's work here; this is a creation myth of the American Dream, and it plumbs very deep.
Gray's style is unfussy, classical, but his superb eye allows the odd dazzling composition (such as the ones that begin & end the film). However, his favoured shot here is of Marion Cotillard's face. So much rests on Cotillard here, and she is sublime. Though the film demands that she remains still and reserved for much of the running time, her eyes signal all of the repressed emotion she is suffering, all the pain and shame and loneliness. Renner is a charming match for her, but Phoenix's glowering pimp is a more interesting character. In love with this girl, he nonetheless makes her a prostitute, twists and manipulates her and does his best to ensure she stays by his side.
That sort of psychological complexity - and the arthouse trappings - is what makes such an old-fashioned film feel so thrillingly contemporary. Gray's talent and ability as a storyteller is what makes it so hypnotic.
A magnificent film.