Cannes Check 2013: James Gray’s ‘The Immigrant’

(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, James Gray with “The Immigrant.”)

The director: James Gray (American, 43 years old). For whatever reason, sometimes an American filmmaker gathers more of a following among critics abroad than in his own home country, and Gray is one of those. A graduate of the USC film program, though otherwise (as plainly reflected in his films) a born-and-bred New Yorker, Gray got an early start on the European festival circuit: his 1995 debut feature, “Little Odessa,” won him the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival when he was just 25 years old. Since then, every one of his four subsequent features — he’s not exactly prolific — has been placed in Competition at Cannes. The French, in particular, groove to Gray’s low-key, 1970s-accented tales of crime and heartbreak in the Big Apple. As if to prove it, he has a writing credit on a second film in Cannes this year: Frenchman Guillaume Canet’s out-of-competition “Blood Ties,” a New York-set thriller. 

The talent: Gray isn’t the only name linking “The Immigrant” and “Blood Ties”: Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner, incidentally) is in both films, and takes the lead here. Joining her at the top of the bill in what one of the Competition’s starrier entries are another two Oscar nominees: Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix, of course, is a Gray regular, having also appeared in the director’s last three films. The lower-wattage supporting cast has (obviously, given the subject matter) an international flavor, including players from Poland (Dagmara Dominczyk), Ukraine (Ilia Volok) and Armenia (Angela Sarafyan), as well as long-serving American hardman Antoni Corone. (Also, I don’t know how significant a presence burlesque performer DeeDee Luxe is, playing a character called Bandits Roost Tart, is, but those names are too fun not to type.)

As with Gray’s last film, 2008’s “Two Lovers,” the director co-wrote the script with the late Ric Menello, famed for his filmic hip-hop collaborations. Among his co-producers, meanwhile, is Greg Shapiro, who shared in the Best Picture Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” four years ago. Below the line, the name to get excited about is Iranian-born, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji, whose long list of impressive credits — “Seven,” “Evita,” “My Blueberry Nights,” “Mindnight in Paris” — includes last year’s Palme d’Or winner, “Amour.” Editor John Axelrad also cut Gray’s last two films; he’s joined by Kayla Emter. Production designer Happy Massee, who evidently has a lot to work with in this period piece, has a music video background, and also worked on “Two Lovers.” 

The pitch: Known at different points as “Lowlife” and “Nightingale,” the originally-scripted “The Immigrant” is Gray’s first film to travel beyond New York’s recent past, and looks to be his glossiest work to date. Set in 1920, Cotillard plays Polish immigrant Ewa, who, upon her arrival at Ellis Island, is separated from her sister and released alone into Manhattan: there, she finds refuge in the employ of a charismatic pimp Bruno (Phoenix). Potential salvation from a grim life of prostitution arrives in the form of Bruno’s cousin Orlando (Renner), a magician with whom she begins a passionate love affair. This appealingly simple synopsis suggests that Gray is working once more in the classical romantic vein of “Two Lovers,” though perhaps with inflections of Hollywood melodrama. The film, which has reportedly been complete for some time, is being distributed by The Weinstein Company — which is especially notable given that Gray and the Weinsteins fell out over Miramax’s handling of “The Yards” in 2000.

The pedigree: As I mentioned at the top, French Cannes patrons may place Gray higher up the auteur ladder than American ones — though “Two Lovers,” a small film which found a select group of devotees on both sides of the pond, arguably shortened the distance a little. Cannes programmers have certainly been loyal to Gray, though its jurors have been less generous: the director’s three previous Competition entries earned not one prize between them. He may be seen as a pet director of the French, though it’s still Venice that handed him the biggest (and earliest) coup of his career. The addition of three major stars in their prime — with Phoenix once more an object of critical fascination following “The Master” — lends extra cachet. 

The buzz: Strong. We’ve been waiting some time for “The Immigrant,” which was rumored to be ready ahead of last year’s Venice Film Festival — though it always seemed likelier that Gray would hold out for a fourth straight Cannes berth. Whispers from those who have seen the film (and it’s not just the Weinstein publicity machine) describe the film as a significant formal advance for the director, and it’s already being pegged as one to watch for the American awards season — which would be unfamiliar territory indeed for Gray. (You might speculate that the decision to change the title from the sexier, more evocative “Lowlife” to the nobler-sounding “The Immigrant” is not unrelated.) We’ll wait and see, though early stills have at least guaranteed us a visual treat.

The odds: Cannes oddsmaker Neil Young pegs Gray’s Palme chances at a healthy 8-1. Of course, advance excitement doesn’t necessarily translate into festival gold, particularly for a starry production guaranteed a life outside the fest — my gut feeling is that Steven Spielberg will be inclined to subvert expectations by crowning something on the less mainstream end of the spectrum. (Many US prestige pictures that are showered with awards later in the year leave Cannes empty-handed: think “L.A. Confidential” or “No Country for Old Men.”)  Still, as long as Cannes keeps selecting him, Gray’s awards duck has to break at some point: this could be his year to take Best Director, for example. Meanwhile, home favorite Cotillard — whom many expected to win at Cannes last year for “Rust and Bone” — will once more be in a crowded Best Actress conversation. 

The premiere date: Friday, May 24.

In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up a rather less starry entry in this year’s Competition lineup: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Grigris.”


Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s “A Villa in Italy”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Arnaud des Pallières’s “Michael Kohlhaas”

Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian”

Amat Escalante’s “Heli”

Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past”