The great emotional impact of James Gray’s formidable new melodrama The Immigrant is gradual. In the film’s epic opening moments, polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cottilard) arrives at Ellis Island in 1921. The weight of her character’s decisions and compromises, which involve trusting a shady theater operator named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) with her well being, is not immediately felt. But like all of James Gray’s tormented lead characters, the more time you spend with them, the more complex their experiences become. Through Ewa’s glazed eyes, the film examines how survival and adaptation often trumps common sense and safety. In this sense, Gray has crafted a masterpiece of pragmatic will that only gains resonance with each shadowy frame. A day after The Immigrant premiered at Cannes 2013 to a rousing mix of praise and criticism, Press Play sat down with Gray at the Carlton Hotel on the Croisette to discuss 1930s melodramas, gender representation on screen, family dynamics, and Fellini’s La Strada.
Press Play: Your films often deal with the illusion of the American dream. How do you think The Immigrant is different from your previous work in this regard?
James Gray: Ewa is a survivor. I think she’s going to make it. I don’t think she’s going to live a perfect life or be able to forget what has happened to her, but I think she’s going to make it somehow. I don’t know if my other characters will make it. In a perverse way Ewa is heroic, and I don’t mean heroic like a superhero. What I mean is heroic in a mythic sense because she accomplishes something in her pursuit to create a new life for herself and her sister. I think despite everything she goes through, she is going to endure and pull through. So maybe that’s how her experience, and the film as a whole, are different.
PP: The Immigrant is told from the perspective of a woman, while your previous films have all been told from the perspective of men. Why was this film so important to tell from a woman’s perspective, especially considering the period piece setting?
JG: In Los Angeles, of all places I had seen a production of Il trittico, which is three operettas by Puccini, two of which are tragic—“Il tabarro” and “Suor Angelica,” and the third is a comedy, “Gianni Schicchi.” Woody Allen directed the comedy, and William Friedkin directed the tragedies. The second one Friedkin did, “Sour Angelica,” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. There was a real breakthrough moment for me during this segment because I saw something completely, nakedly emotional which didn’t require any of the trappings of machismo. Nobody had to hold a gun, and nobody had to run around acting tough. It was entirely about a woman’s experience. This experience showed me that I was able to drop all of the trappings of male behavior and make something that follows the emotion of the moment. As for the period, that was me trying to tap in directly to parts of my own family history, why my family exists the way it does emotionally. Both the gender of the character and this desire to mine my own history were married to create the story.
PP: The gender issue is brought up quite often in the film. Ewa is a single woman who has her family ripped apart in the opening moments, and it leaves her with this decision to make. Does she move forward or backward? If the film were told from a man’s perspective, it would have an entirely different focus.
JG: I was on the jury in Marrakech in December, and we had to give a Best Actress award. I couldn’t find an actress in the main character role to choose from. My own position as a juror was that, as a group, we should make a comment and not give the award at all because no film had a great female performance at its center. I find that situation interesting, because women make up the majority on this planet. What, 52 or 53 percent of the population? And yet, for some reason, men control the news and drama. But with my films I’ve always tried to make a comment on the patriarchy, to say this is the way things are. I guess The Immigrant was my only way to break through that. It’s weird, because American films in the 1930s and 40s, particularly melodramas, were made for woman. From Bette Davis to Joan Crawford to Barbara Stanwyck to Katherine Hepburn, and for some reason we’ve taken a step backward in this sense. Think about this. Take Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The latter’s presentation of the woman is in some ways distinctly more progressive than the former. In Body Heat, the femme fatale turns out to be the center of all evil, and in Double Indemnity Neff turns out to be equally as guilty, if not more so, for everything that occurs. One was made in the 40s, and one was made in the 80s. If you came down from Venus and looked at both movies politically, you might think Double Indemnity was made more recently.
[At this point Mr. Gray spots director Jim Jarmusch walking through the restaurant and stops the interview to say hello. The two exchange friendly words of support, and before leaving, Gray kindly introduces Jarmusch to this wonderfully bemused interviewer.]
JG: Sorry. It’s been months since I’ve seen Jim and I love him to death. He’s a very important person to me.
PP: That’s a whole other interview we could do.
JG: Yeah. [Laughs]
PP: You were talking about female centered films from the 30s and 40s, and I think The Immigrant does attempt to get back to that focus.
JG: Those films are mostly melodramas, which is a beautiful genre, but sometimes they get melodramatic. Melodrama and melodramatic are not the same thing, and often people make the mistake of confusing the two. Melodrama is one of the most stunning art forms. These are stories where the emotions are big and the situations are big, and the artists believe in the situation dramatically. There’s no irony or distance. If there is a sense of distance, the story becomes melodramatic. Being in the moment is a risky place for a creative person to be. Because believing in the emotional moment is very out of fashion. But there’s no art without risk.
PP: There’s a level of pragmatism in Eva’s decisions that make her unique as a character, strong, realistic, and vulnerable. What was it about her sense of pragmatism that interested you most?
JG: Not long before I made the film I read Primo Levi’s book Survival in Auschwitz, which talks about the perverse idea that even in this horrible place, there were moments of joy. To me this is so inconceivable. I mean, what joy is going on there? I don’t understand. But the idea is that even under the most horrendous of circumstances, survival is the single most powerful idea. I wanted to compose a character who would be, in a quiet way, very steely, very driven by survival, and by adaptability. She would adapt to any circumstance, no matter how awful.
PP: It’s even more interesting when you consider Jeremy Renner’s character Orlando, the charming magician, and how he complicates Ewa’s pragmatism.
JG: It’s very hard for Ewa to believe him. Orlando has a history as a gambler, a drunk, and a womanizer. The whole idea isn't to create characters that have no flaws. If I had made Renner’s character a white knight in response to Bruno, there would be no choice, conflict, or struggle. There would be nothing interesting about this dynamic. When approaching this situation, I thought of the conception of the Holy Fool, the idea that a person can show us the way, but it doesn’t mean that person is perfect.
PP: Kind of like La Strada?
JG: Exactly like La Strada! The movie is a rip-off of La Strada. Well, not the last third. But if you think of La Strada, you have Zampano (Joaquin Phoenix’s character), you have Gelsomina (Marion Cotillard’s character), and you have The Holy Fool (Jeremy Renner’s character). The Immigrant is directed in a very different way because La Strada is essentially a fable and a road movie, so there are differences. But I was certainly affected by Fellini’s film. I just decided to approach it in a more realistic way. Today, if you made a fable like that it might be seen as quite quaint. Also, you don’t want to merely repeat Fellini anyway. You want to do your own thing. Interestingly though, at the end of La Strada there’s no real redemption. It’s actually a lot darker than my film. Zampano realizes too late that he loves her. There’s no real redemption. Here, I had wanted to present a situation where the characters' relationships and confessions are paramount. In some ways, there is hope for both Ewa and Bruno.
PP: In terms of performance, how did you approach the character of Bruno with Joaquin Phoenix?
JG: We had engineered that whole thing really almost in reverse. We had started thinking about the climax, which in a way sums up the entire character, the self-destructive qualities of the character. I always felt that the self-hate of Bruno would govern all of the behavior that came before in the film—the lying, the manipulating, and the fact that he is essentially a predator. It’s all an act to intimidate Ewa into being on stage. But it was a strange trajectory in terms of working on the character backwards, from the end to the beginning.
PP: Why do family dynamics interest you so much?
JG: It’s the basis of who we are. So much of who we are as people comes from the dynamics of the family. But absence of family also is who you are. If I want to understand who a person is, I start there.
PP: This film is unique in that Ewa is by herself and Bruno provides this false sense of extended family. But it’s all a façade.
JG: He does it on purpose and that’s how he survives. Bruno even says it in the film, “The things you do to survive.” One of the great traumas for me is what I call the “4am scaries”, the realization that we are alone in the world. I remember as a little kid I would always feel comfortable if the light in the crack of my parent’s door was on at night. When it went off that meant they were asleep. Then that terror and the fear of being by myself started to creep in. I think this feeling is more important than we care to admit. Being in a gang, being in a club, a group, all of this is an attempt to try and shatter that fear, and Bruno creates this kind of pseudo-family in order to survive emotionally and financially. He might not admit that as a character, but it’s his way.
PP: I have to ask you this because it’s been on my mind every since your first film. Happy occasions in your films are never really happy. Dinner parties in We Own the Night, the family gatherings in Two Lovers, the welcome home party in The Yards, they all hide the repressed emotional state of the characters and their relation to family.
JG: [Laughs] I never thought of it that way but you’re completely right. There are some things you aren’t conscious of in life, and that is one of them. I think it says terrible things about my own past, meanwhile I have family gatherings that are great. I have a fantastic wife and great kids, so I don’t know what I’m working out there, but it’s not necessarily conscious. I guess it’s dramatic tension, multiple levels of a scene. A scene should always operate based on what the subject is that's right beneath it. The subtext is everything.Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.