The inaugural screening for my filmic fanboy dalliance at MIFF (the Melbourne International Film Festival) for 2014 was an evening première of writer/director James Gray’s The Immigrant — and, to invoke the timeworn clichè of all those nostalgists whom bloviate over pop.-culture, they just don’t make films like this anymore. They’d be right.
This is a film of a stately classicism and sedate formalism rarely seen outside of the Hollywood studio system romances of Elias Kazan, master of melodrama and monochromatic mood. You’d be hard pressed to disparage with or deviate from the Kazan associations when surmising Joaquin Phoenix’s brooding, elliptical and finally turbulent performance as Bruno Weiss, as there’s some suggestion of Brando in his penitent and dishevelled scramble for purity in the film’s climactic final scenes — albeit maybe A Place In the Sun-era Montgomery Clift, with his sweat-beaded brow and his convulsive retreat into guilt, would be more accurate.
However, there’s more to Gray’s vision here than mere cinematic mimicry or earnest homage, and the film blooms into something simultaneously familiar and strange through the startling, impeccable, emotionally-invested and invariably soulful performance of Marion Cotillard, who never flags in telegraphing to a hushed audience the moral erosion her character, Ewa Cybulska, feels she’s inflicted on herself and her dream for American providence.
What Gray has crafted, here, is much closer to something like that selfsame American dream: a conviction in a meaning that seems sometimes intangible, but always intoxicating. When Jeremy Renner enters the picture as Emil — a.k.a. Orlando, a smalltime stage magician with the gentility, the grace and the insouciance of an early-career Clark Gable — the film deepens and enriches yet further, into a luminous, swimmy creature not unlike Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America as envisioned by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Unlike most independent American filmmakers his age, Gray never amplifies or undermines the sincerity of the drama with resort to kinetic displays of cinematographic extravagance, or syncopated editing rhythms. He suffices his aspirations and the apprehension for aesthetic control through the exhaustive and exquisite finesse he applies to shot composition, lighting and mise-en-scéne, and there’s something to be said for a director whom can suffuse Marion Cotillard’s features with swooning painterly hues enough to send me scrabbling to Google Image-assisted comparisons with Baroque portraitists long dead in the ground.
I love this film, and albeit James Gray conjures each shot as through a rose-tinted glass, I can’t say I came away from the screening in levitations of private ecstasy. Instead, I can say he broke my heart, to redeem an ugly legacy, and to convey two women of bruised innocence across the Hudson harbour and into history’s bracing white mist.
Images courtesy of The Immigrant (dir. James Gray; 2013) and cinematographer Darius Khondji