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Cannes 2013, Day Nine: James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix reteam for a compelling period drama

Well, that was a disaster. I successfully got into 3x3D, the omnibus film featuring shorts by Peter Greenaway, Jean-Luc Godard, and a prolific (but virtually unknown in America) Portuguese director named Edgar Pêra, but discovered when the film began that my 3-D glasses didn’t work. Fumbled around for a power switch, but there wasn’t one—they were just defective, apparently. Had I been seated near the aisle, I’d have run to exchange them (as I saw a couple of other folks hurriedly do), but I didn’t feel comfortable clambering over half a dozen people in the Espace Miramar’s cramped theater, especially knowing that I’d have to clamber my way back again. So I just sat there and stared at the doubled images, trying to imagine how they might look in three dimensions. Greenaway’s film is arguably pretty legible even in 2-D—it’s a virtual tour of some sort, festooned with textual annotations (which I mostly couldn’t read, because they were doubled)—but I was clearly missing everything interesting about the Godard piece, and I wound up napping through most of Pêra’s (which looked insufferable). The possibility of individual equipment failure just gives me another reason to dislike 3-D, which I hope will soon be re-consigned to cinema’s history of failed experiments.

With that fiasco still fresh in memory, it was a relief to be enveloped in the old-school classicism of The Immigrant, James Gray’s fourth consecutive collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix (and his fourth consecutive film to première at Cannes—the French adore him). Set in 1920s New York, it stars Marion Cotillard as a Polish nurse who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister and winds up branded a woman of “low morals,” earmarked for deportation. (The sister, who has tuberculosis, gets quarantined.) But it’s Phoenix to the rescue, as a shady theater manager with unexplained “connections” who takes Cotillard home and promptly, but tenderly, starts pimping her out, explaining that this is the only way she can earn enough money to buy her sister’s entry into America. For the most part, The Immigrant is just a straightforward, doggedly low-key account of one woman’s struggle to retain her dignity in squalid circumstances, restrained and measured enough to recall any number of so-called “women’s pictures” from the ’50s and ’60s, but the scenes between Cotillard and Phoenix have a prickly psychological acuity that keeps you off-guard. Occasional bursts of anger notwithstanding, Phoenix is perhaps the most compassionate, even courtly scoundrel imaginable, and Cotillard, despite her pragmatic acceptance of his services, is having none of his ostensible affection. Much less rewarding is a subplot involving Phoenix’s antagonistic relationship with his cousin (Jeremy Renner), a low-rent magician who falls for Cotillard and offers to take her away from all this; Renner has fun with the part, which allows him to be cockier and more charming than usual, but his presence feels like a distraction in a movie that’s fundamentally about the thin line between love and exploitation—a theme that gets spelled out far too clearly in the movie’s anguished final scene. Two Lovers suggested that Gray was developing a distinctively woozy aesthetic of his own, thereby finally getting me excited about him. Here, he’s doing a self-conscious approximation of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the result, while reasonably compelling, feels secondhand. Grade: B


Even more familiar are the hackneyed genre tropes Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun employs in Grigris, the sole African movie in Competition this year (unless you count Abdellatif Kechiche’s Tunisian heritage). Its protagonist at first looks promisingly unusual: Grigris is the nickname of a popular dancer about town, whose moves are both restricted and arrestingly defined by the fact that his left leg is at least partially paralyzed. (I gather this is actually true of the non-professional actor who plays him, Souleymane Démé.) Alas, the movie isn’t about a big dance contest, but recounts the misfortunes that befall Grigris when he (a) falls for a hooker (Anaïs Monory) in defiance of the community’s moral standards, and (b) decides to rip off local gangsters in order to pay for a sick relative’s hospital care. Maybe it’s still possible to do something interesting with such tired storylines at this late date, but Haroun treats them as if they’ve never been dramatized before—not in any self-aware, visionary sense, but with the obliviousness of someone who simply doesn’t know that he’s re-enacting clichés. Thankfully, his eye for vivid imagery remains intact, as in shots of Grigris and his fellow thieves transporting drums of stolen gasoline via waterlogged passageways awash with orange light. (Why is orange okay here but red hilariously wrong in Only God Forgives, you ask? Because Haroun’s use of color is subtly evocative, not a non-stop case of cone-searing overkill. And yes, I know Winding Refn is colorblind. So am I. It’s no excuse.) Grigris isn’t painful to endure, and the ending, which comes out of nowhere, has an agreeably perverse sting in its tail, but the film’s presence at Cannes is hard to justify except as a case of tokenism. Something this ordinary has no place here. Grade: C+

Tomorrow: is my final day here—usually I stay through Sunday and the awards ceremony, but this year the cheapest flight I could find departs early that morning. I still have three Competition films left to see: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur, and the movie I skipped last night in favor of my 2-D 3-D experience, Michael Kohlhaas (by the relatively unknown Arnaud Des Pallières), which reliable reports suggest is not so hot. In addition to necessarily brief reports on those, check back for my entirely useless award predictions (SPOILER: I never get anything right), plus the choices I’d make were I a jury of one (SPOILER: Only God Bestows).

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