CANNES - James Gray has always made period films – it’s just that they haven’t always been set in the past. Since arriving on the scene as a precocious 25-year-old with his Venice-laurelled 1994 debut “Little Odessa,” the New Yorker has unobtrusively fostered a reputation as one of the American cinema’s last true classicists, his writing and visual storytelling alike distinguished by an unfashionable emotional sincerity and matte polish – virtues that the French have embraced far more openly over the years than Gray’s compatriots.

Gray is, to some extent, repaying that Continental loyalty with “The Immigrant,” a painstakingly restrained but profoundly romantic coming-to-America drama, and his first film set outside his own lifetime. It’s arguably his most Eurocentric work, and not just as an evocative document of the European immigrant experience – taking as its subject a penniless Polish future-seeker, one of many thousands to set sail for Ellis Island in the grim wake of the First World War. Less literally, in its most rapturous moments, “The Immigrant” channels the Euro-Hollywood immigrant cinema of such artists as Murnau and von Sternberg: its gauzily stylized aesthetic and literarily composed love story reaching past latter-day realism. The resulting film is altogether extraordinary: a silent tragedy with words, at once boldly breaking form while reflecting all Gray’s passions and curiosities.

Like Gray’s last film, 2008’s underappreciated “Two Lovers,” “The Immigrant” takes a modest love triangle as its skeleton – at least, what seems like a love triangle until an abrupt turn of events prove it was two lovers all along. Where “Two Lovers” used that traditional form as a canvas for a finely-etched character study, however, “The Immigrant” is content to keep its principals as enigmatic archetypes, saving the densest detail for its evocation of time and place.

As ever, Gray has little need for frilly backstory or context. The year is 1921, and we open on Ewa (Cotillard) and her TB-stricken sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), fresh off the boat from Poland and trembling in the naturalization office, waiting for the green light to begin their new lives. It never comes: Magda is whisked off for six months’ quarantine in the immigrant infirmary, while Ewa, accused of slatternly behaviour on the boat trip, is instructed to line up for immediate deportation.

It’s a corrupt ruse, designed to get defenceless pretties like Ewa into the care of “talent” promoter and pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who guards his girls with equal parts paternal protectiveness and chilly sexual exploitation. He claims early on that Ewa – whom he dresses, ironically enough, as Lady Liberty for his tacky cheesecake revue – is more equal than the others, though it’s not until late in the game that we learn whether or not he truly believes that. In the meantime, his kinder-hearted cousin, vaudeville magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner, winning if oddly cast), enters the scene and falls swiftly head over heels for her. All the while, the ailing Magda remains Ewa’s primary concern and motivation, even in her romantic decisions; theirs is the pure love story that cuts through the film’s more torrid melodrama, and Ewa’s escape route takes shape only when the men around her realize that.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.