It's hard to believe that it's a whole year since James Gray's "The Immigrant" was unveiled at Cannes to response that ranged from the rhapsodic to the sneering. A hot topic for the duration of the festival, it then dropped alarmingly off the radar, as its release was ever further postponed by The Weinstein Company. And as one of those who rhapsodised harder than most last year -- the film placed in my top five of 2013 -- I'm relieved to say that it finally reaches US theaters today.
Still, probably not as relieved as Gray himself, a director who is used to creative and critical resistance -- it is well known by now that his work is more openly embraced in France than on home turf -- but has had to fight especially hard for "The Immigrant," a film he firmly believes is the best of his career. Starring Marion Cotillard as a Polish ingenue fresh off the boat at Ellis Island in the 1920s, caught between a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a magician (Jeremy Renner) in a swooning romantic triangle, the film plays in an unabashedly melodramatic register that enraptures some and leaves others cold.
Gray welcomes such division, and doesn't mind admitting that he reads his reviews; he remembers his experience on the Croisette as a nerve-jangling one. Still, speaking on the phone from his native New York City, the director sounds cheerily invigorated -- happy to be on the publicity trail for the film once again. "But I've been here all this time!" he quips, when I mention how long I've been waiting for a chance to interview him. We chatted at length about why the film polarizes people, why Marion Cotillard has "the greatest face," and why he can't seem to quit the Big Apple.
HitFix: I recall you saying last year that "The Immigrant" is your favorite of your films. A year on, do you still feel that way?
James Gray: Oh yeah, I think it’s my best – I don't even think it's close. But, you know, others disagree, so what do I know? The way that I view it is: okay, you have ambition A, B or C for a film, so how close does it come to your original intentions? So what I view as my favorite is probably quite different from what other people might. But I do think it is because it has the most range and the most ambition. I don't mean ambition in the sense of 100,000 camels running down a sand dune, but cinematic ambition.
What was that ambition in the first place, when you conceived the film?
It’s a good question. When you’re talking about thematic ambition for a movie you’re talking about something that is both very specific and shockingly broad. In a sense, the ambition was to be as empathic and as democratic and as non-judgmental as I possibly could about the world that I was trying to depict. And to make a movie that is about love and co-dependency in kind of a personal context. That seems really broad and simple – and simple-minded, in a way. But the purity of something that I like always has a kind of simplicity about it. Not ease. Ease is cheap. Sentimentality is cheap. But emotionality and simplicity, that’s difficult and very beautiful.
So that was always the ambition: something that was about the unending possibility of redemption. On that level, I was very, very pleased with what Marion and Joaquin and Jeremy did for me, because it was very generous. Of course, this is aside from all the visual influences you have, and how you use the camera to emphasize this or that idea. This is where you start. And where I started was to say: okay, I’d like to make a film that is about this thing where nobody is beneath us. There’s no irony.