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Cannes Review and Roundup: James Gray's 'The Immigrant' vs. 'Nebraska'

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood May 24, 2013 at 1:14PM

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.
The Immigrant


James Gray has come to Cannes with a gloomy and baffling period drama set in 1920s New York among the huddled masses yearning to be free in the new world. It begins promisingly enough. In the first half-hour, The Immigrant looks like a subdued, complex and intriguing drama with Marion Cotillard holding centre stage as Ewa, the scared young Polish woman, just off the boat, who must do what she can to survive.

But the movie becomes a bizarre tragi-melodrama on a single plaintive note of despair: sluggish, at times entirely implausible, and trapped in its own Stygian gloom as the sad-eyed Ewa gets involved with Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the MC of a saucy burlesque show, and his cousin, the twinkly-eyed stage magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner).

The Hollywood Reporter:

The emotional and moral price of the immigrant experience, circa 1921 in New York, is expressed in quietly wrenching terms in The Immigrant, James Gray’s sensitively observed melodrama about a Polish woman forced to run a gauntlet of degrading experiences to secure a foothold in the New World.


Scratch the good-looking, emotionally charged surface of James Gray’s period take on the love triangle theme he has already explored in Two Lovers and you find a rather stagey melodrama with religious overtones. Set in early 1920s New York, this story of a Polish immigrant who is dragged into a demi-monde of prostitution and burlesque shows by a pimp with a heart of gold moves along briskly enough; but in dramatic terms, we’re on the outside looking in, admiring Marion Cotillard’s full-on performance as Ewa, an innocent besmirched, while never really being engaged by a story so old-school that we half expect to see it narrated via intertitles.

Cementing himself as the great classicist of his generation, James Gray turns back the clock to 1921 in “The Immigrant,” a romantic tale that cuts to the very soul of the American experience. This rich, beautifully rendered film boasts an arrestingly soulful performance from Marion Cotillard as a Polish nurse-turned-prostitute for whom the symbolic promise of Ellis Island presents only hardship. Her travails unfold at a pace that will frustrate today’s attention-deficit audiences.

It’s a beautifully shot film marked by deeply felt performances from its leads, that will play to those attuned to the loveliness of Gray’s minor-key redemption stories, but is unlikely to win new converts among the impatient or those whose expectation of a period drama is something more traditionally epic and grandiose.

This article is related to: Festivals, Cannes Film Festival, The Immigrant, James Gray, Marion Cotillard, Nebraska, Alexander Payne

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.