You know those two little lines you get in your forehead when you frown? The ones that, if you frown too much, stick there for good? The French have a name for that: “the lion wrinkle.” And by the 10th day of Cannes, there are a lot of lion wrinkles visible among critics and journalists around the Palais des Festivals. People are tired and cranky and appear to be thoroughly sick of the French Riviera, if such a thing is possible.
By Lion Wrinkle Day, the joint has begun to clear out—like most festivals, Cannes is generally, if unofficially, front-loaded, which means most of the potentially significant films screen earlier on. At least that’s the perception, but it’s never a good idea to get too complacent. James Gray’s The Immigrant, which screened for the press on Friday, May 24, is one of the strongest films in the festival competition, although as with nearly all of Gray’s films, critics here seem strongly divided on it.
For me, it’s yet more evidence that Gray is a director who can tease rich, subtle colors out of melodrama. He’s unafraid of strong emotion; he doesn’t care about looking cool. And the movie he’s made, a stylized take on the experience of a Polish immigrant newly arrived in New York in the early 1920s, feels classical, but it also breathes. It’s as if the ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the tyranny of faded photographs and allowed, once again, to move, think, and feel.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, newly arrived in the United States. She made the crossing with her sickly sister, who was whisked away by the authorities upon arrival and detained indefinitely in a hospital on Ellis Island. Ewa has nowhere to go and no way of making a living, but she’s befriended by Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno, who gives her a place to stay and hints at possible employment. It turns out Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and with half-courtly, half-cagey seductiveness, he persuades Ewa that the quickest, surest way for her to earn the money needed to free her sister is to join his bevy of salacious beauties.
Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face—Cotillard’s face—is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied; her radiance is intertwined with her dignity. Bruno may try to possess her, but it’s his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters here read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind: Scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn’t the same as innocence.
Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes into an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. Shot by Darius Khondji—partly on location on Ellis Island—it’s glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light. The performances are incandescent, too: Phoenix, always a bit of an eccentric, modulates his quirks here, as if in deference to the story and its nuances—he has a nightshade intensity. Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul.
Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. The new world Ewa has entered is hardly welcoming, but she strides into it with an explorer’s spirit. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you’re not wanted into one you can call home.