Politics & Policy

The Monotonous Melodrama of James Gray

The Immigrant’s anti-American nostalgia comes to DVD.

Are movies getting dumber? That question arises with this week’s DVD release of James Gray’s The Immigrant, a film best known in cinema circles as the bone of contention between director Gray and distributor Harvey Weinstein, who neglected to launch one of his famous, invincible Oscar campaigns — the showbiz equivalent of a dictator’s fiat — on its behalf.

It turns out that the movie, a box-office flop on its original premiere, was hardly worth the gossip; yet it distills some of Hollywood‘s most dumbed-down political fallacies. The story of Ewa (Marion Cotillard) — a Polish émigrée separated from her tubercular sister on Ellis Island, then rescued by Bruno, a hustler who introduces her to prostitution — is a tawdry, sentimental version of the kind of stories, set on the Lower East Side of New York, that were plentiful during the 1920s and ’30s, when Hollywood moguls were closer to their own just-off-the-boat ethnic pasts.

Gray, who is 46, and two generations away from bootstrap legend, enjoys the contemporary independent filmmaker’s privilege of vicarious mythologizing. He has gained a reputation for melodramas (The Yards, We Own the Night, the TV series The Red Road) about Americans whose criminal and family lives intertwine. It’s a peculiar new millennial fascination, peculiarly apolitical in Gray’s refusal to face the social ramifications of crime. Instead, he romanticizes corruption, as when he turns Ewa’s dilemma into a frustrated love triangle with Bruno and his magician cousin Emil.

This melodramatic story of thwarted ambition matches the post-9/11 cynicism frequently expressed by guilt-ridden filmmakers, usually of middle-class background, whose naïve response to American history causes them to turn their sense of wrongdoing inward — like politicians acting out a guilt-ridden foreign policy. (The same fake, overwrought “realism” was also featured in J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.) Since this typically liberal attitude has appeal for many reviewers (the There Will Be Blood cynics), Gray gets praised for his combination of clichéd stories and lurid, almost gothic pessimism.

In The Immigrant, Gray’s dour Americana is almost laughably vicarious; he borrows promiscuously from movie history. Cotillard, who specializes in hard-luck dames, plays Ewa with a wide-eyed desperation recalling silent-era actress Janet Gaynor, an Oscar-winner for her 1927 double-whammy in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, two movies rooted in the early-20th-century tension between rural and urban living.

Watching the way Gray consciously evokes that dichotomy of American social development is like bingeing on TV re-runs. His visual scheme and domestic focus emulate the Godfather trilogy; here, cinematographer Darius Khondji repeats the chiaroscuro of the Young Vito scenes. Gray must have been struck dumb when he saw The Godfather Part II, and he hasn’t been able to get over it. If he had heeded Part III’s necessary moral reckoning, he might have gotten the sentimentality, the false erudition — and the naïve historical perspective — out of his head.

#related#When Ewa is asked, “What do you want in America?” she gives the spoiled-brat answer, “I want to be happy.” This is Gray’s simple-minded distillation of American values, the cause of the friction between Bruno and Emil, both chasing illusions (and both acted to excess, by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, respectively). One is a theatrical impresario/pimp and the other an unstable romantic. “You’ve got a right to be happy,” they tell Ewa, and this desperate triangle’s dream of going to California (movieland) not only suggests a risible pre-history of the Warner brothers, it also seems to be a dullard’s version of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. (Odd that Gray makes no room for the Pledge of Allegiance naturalization scene that was the best part of Paul Mazursky’s 1984 Moscow on the Hudson.)

Contemporary cinema’s decline can be seen in Gray’s derivativeness, and he doesn’t command film technique good enough to get away with it. Bruno’s theater scenes (his actress/whores perform itinerant parodies of the Morgan, Astor, and Vanderbilt families) attempt von Sternberg lushness but wind up a sullen Hou Hsiao Hsien tableau. The same dullness occurs when Emil pulls Ewa onto the stage, evoking Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, but then Gray curtails her reverie. All of The Immigrant works that way — as a downer.

Bruno sums up America for Ewa: “You think there’s goodness in everybody, but there isn’t.” His cynicism is an oversimplification of what made the Godfather films so moving. The Immigrant proves: There Will Be Anti-American Clichés. Even sentimental ones.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.


Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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