James Gray on Cotillard, critics, and why ‘The Immigrant’ is his best film

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.

Do you think that emotionality and that lack of irony is what some critics distrust? Is that why the film has been divisive?

You know, point out to me all of the wonderful, ironic, distancing, cynical approaches that have lasted through time. I think you would come up empty. The truth of the matter is that there were self-reflexive works written by the post-Virgilian Romans, but nobody reads them except for graduate students. It's a crisis of our age that art is kind of made for dummies in a way – like, you know, those yellow self-help books. And that allows the viewer to maintain a superiority. It allows the viewer never to confront an uncomfortable notion about him or herself or the world.

There are times when you watch “Raging Bull,” for example, where it”s quite uncomfortable because you”re forced to confront a certain self-destructiveness in you. And on the other end of the spectrum is this ironic distancing thing, with art as a science project where we look at people under a microscope and everything is anthropological. That approach is so hackneyed. And my view, which is not a mainstream one, is that those films – the Cannes one that wins 42 prizes, or the Venice one that's a shock to the system – run the risk of being a joke two years later, because they”re always following the same kind of stylistic blueprint. Handheld camera, poorly photographed, an evident lack of craft. All that is meant to telegraph to you that the author is going to tell us the truth – which, of course, is impossible anyway.

This pseudo-documentary style has now been en vogue in art cinema for 30 or 40 years. I don”t understand why more people don't find it incredibly tiresome – even the Godard stuff which is heralded as a great modernist break. I never remember 'Contempt' for the stylistic break; I remember it for the emotional commitment it makes. That is what matters in the end. Because I say to you, “Nothing matters. it's all meaningless,” that may be true in some objective way. But if nothing matters, then what”s the fucking point? You may as well not even attempt to make anything.

And when you do make something sincere and true, people tend to think of it as as old-fashioned, or a throwback.

It drives me crazy when people – including people who have been very good to me – call “The Immigrant” a throwback film. I can”t embrace that, because what they”re talking about then is just the bare surface of the film: people in costumes. People ask me why it is, you know, that non-English speaking viewers' response to the film is usually better. I have no idea, but I suppose there is a degree of cultural distance involved and that enables a different view of the work.

Some people have no problem extolling the virtues of some three-hour Turkish movie about the history of yogurt, but if it”s an hour and 48 minutes and in a melodrama context, it seems weird to them. Of course, everybody”s free to say anything they want, but it”s essential that we have these discussions. It reflects respect for the medium. If you don”t have intelligent discussions or even arguments about a film, it may as well just be a consumer product. That”s why Cannes is so valuable.

So, if you premiere a film at Cannes and the reaction is split down the middle, do you then feel you've done your job correctly?

I get very excited. Although, in the case of this film, when I looked at the roundup the publicist gave me, the only regret I had was that the UK reviews were really negative, which probably means the film will never come out there. That's kind of devastating. But for the most part, I enjoy the discussion: I”m a film nerd, and when you”re a film nerd, you know the history of movies is a murky one. Some bad films get acclaimed. Some great ones get trashed. You know it doesn”t really mean anything initially.

This is your first film that”s driven by a female perspective. Was that a conscious decision from the outset?

Oh, it was a very conscious choice. At certain points, you get a little sick of macho gunplay and I had done genre films a couple of times. So “Two Lovers” was a bit liberating because I didn”t have to worry about this Russian gangster or that one. “The Immigrant” was born really from an operetta that I saw by Puccini called “Suor Angelica,” about a nun who has a child out of wedlock. It”s an unbelievably emotional thing. I saw it directed by William Friedkin and was just overcome with emotion. So when the idea was to focus on a female protagonist, we were able to forget about any kind of posturing. I could just get to the emotion in a more direct way. Which is not to say that women are biologically more emotional – I”m talking about how we accept masculine and feminine terms in our culture.

So that was very liberating. The idea at first was kind of a Fellini-esque thing: I very much ripped off elements of “La Strada.” And of course, as you work on it, it tend to deviate a bit and then the last third turned out completely different. I didn”t want to do anything that was that closed and grim; I wanted something a little more open-ended. But that was the original inspiration.

Was Marion Cotillard someone you had in mind early on for the project? She has kind of a silent-film face that fits the world of your film so perfectly.

From the very beginning. And yes, that's exactly what I thought too, when I met her. I have to tell you, I had never seen her in a movie, though I'd met her socially. And she just has the greatest face. I”m not talking about her beauty, which is self-evident, but a real expressiveness – like Falconetti or Lillian Gish or somebody like that. Something haunted in those big eyes. which are so haunted. You know, maybe the word “throwback” is not so wrong. Silent filmmakers really did a lot of things right visually that we don”t do. They understood how to tell stories with images. Of course dialogue is important, but I like to ask myself: If you turned down the sound, would the pictures still make sense?

How hands-on do you tend to be with your actors? You've worked with Joaquin Phoenix several times now, for example – has a kind of tacit understanding built up between you, or do you still give a lot of direction?

It depends entirely on the actor. Some ask for it. Some don”t want it. Some need it. Most don”t. If you cast the film correctly, very little expatiation is required. There are times when you need to go into things in depth, but mostly it”s about reminding the actor of the context of the scene. That”s something that they can lose pretty easily. In the case of Joaquin, he and I have a ridiculous shorthand: I”ll do scenes with him and say, “Joaquin,” and he”ll just go, “Yeah, I know.” And then he”ll go off and do something else.

I love what he does in the movie, but it's certainly not by the numbers. The character as originally conceived was much more of a strong-arming brute. And Joaquin said, “You know, this is really not right, because if I play it this way, she”s an idiot. She should just leave.” Then he started talking about Fagin from “Oliver Twist,” and I thought that was a very interesting thing to do: I hadn”t thought of it that way, but he'd have to be a con man from the very beginning, with this nonsensical pseudo-formality about him that's all be stripped away by the end, when he reveals himself as this kind of self-loathing animal. That was a much more sophisticated conception than my initial one. And some people really love it, while others don”t think he”s good in the film at all. So maybe that means it worked.

All your films have been set in New York – is that coincidence, convenience or do you regard the city as something of an essential character in your films at this point?

Here”s the way I would answer that. I don”t know if I think of New York as a character but it”s certainly not an accident that they”re set here.I think I”m trying to express something personal, and New York is so much who I am. I know this sounds all very narcissistic, but it kind of has to be if you”re going to pursue this medium. So New York”s cultural attitudes have very much dictated who I am – even the weather has. It's not a conscious thing. It's part of me revealing myself.

“The Immigrant” opens in limited release today.