Cotillard and Phoenix in 'The Immigrant'
Cotillard and Phoenix in 'The Immigrant'

A pair of films addressing very different aspects of the American experience, and set 92 years apart, have screened in Competition over the last couple of days: Alexander Payne’s "Nebraska" and James Gray’s "The Immigrant." Sad to say, I had expectations for both but didn’t engage with either, although admittedly my perceptions may be tainted by the cumulative effects of a nine-day onslaught of early morning screenings and inevitable late nights. Festival fatigue has arrived!

While they exist on opposing ends of the spectrum in terms of genre, tone and narrative ambition, both films do depict, in their own ways, an America that’s dog eat dog, money-obsessed and not especially harmonic despite any surface niceties expressed or warm embraces offered.

The lead character in "The Immigrant" (Marion Cotillard) is trying to survive in a new world, and ends up trying to make money or steal it. At one point she even says with a heretofore unseen ferocity, “I love money!” Cotillard plays Eva, a Polish woman freshly arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 who is separated from her tubercular sister and falls into the clutches of Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno, a Jewish pimp running a prostitution ring off the back of his ‘mistresses of the world’ variety show. Cotillard’s Eva quickly learns what’s important for surviving and profiteering in America.


In "Nebraska," spaced-out boozer Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that his junk-mail sweepstakes letter saying he’s won $1 million is genuine, and after trying to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska himself, sets out on a road trip with his hangdog son David (Will Forte) to collect the prize. A detour into Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, brings out the greed motive among several members of his extended family and former business partner (Stacy Keach), all dropping strong hints that he should share his good fortune.

While that’s not uniquely American, just human, there were moments in Nebraska where I just felt the film veering into condescension towards its small-town characters. Working for the first time from a script he didn’t write, Payne, who also shot in black and white to foster a mood of economic decline and social malaise, often casts locals in his films and does so here.

But the lives portrayed in Nebraska are as barren as the plains state’s landscapes, with conversations limited to hellos, goodbyes and “What car do you drive?”, and family reunions that mostly involve vacant staring at the television. David’s parents (including "About Schmidt" actress June Squibb as his angry, plain-speaking mother), meanwhile, can hardly stand each other – but like so much of Nebraska, it’s yet another shallow detail that doesn’t amount to much. I did like Dern, though, and you can always count on Payne to hit the comic mark on several occasions.

While neither offer a compelling milieu, Gray’s unconvincing miserablist epic does at least get a significant lift from Darius Khondji’s exquisite, sepia-tinged photography. The final shot in "The Immigrant" is to die for, and there are many more leading up to that moment that also ravish the eyes. The same can be said for Cotillard, one of the most facially expressive and beautiful actresses working today. You can admire her level of commitment as Eva in "The Immigrant"; she speaks Polish like a native. But I’m afraid Gray has let Cotillard down, in that he hasn’t guided her performance in the way that, say, Olivier Dahan did in "La Vie En Rose," or even Jacques Audiard in "Rust And Bone." I never felt that I had a firm grip on who Eva was, and some of Gray’s creative decisions regarding where to swell the saccharine score and frame the close-ups almost felt like something you’d see on Funny Or Die, a spoof on how to manufacture an Oscar-winning performance.

The script, in general, was undermined throughout by clunky, expositional dialogue. Jeremy Renner was unconvincing as a street-smart magician; his adversarial face-off with Phoenix for Eva’s affections never generates any momentum.

I will revisit "Nebraska" down the line with a fresher pair of eyes. "The Immigrant," on the other hand, I’m confident will not be making my Top 10 of 2013 list.

A Cannes review round-up of "Nebraska" is here; 'The Immigrant" early reviews are below: