James Gray's sincere melodrama "The Immigrant" has divided the Cannes Film Festival not for its politics or its audaciousness, but for its sentimentality.
Gray's 1920s Ellis Island tale, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard, has been called the most divisive film at this year's Cannes, where it premiered in competition Friday night. He made it, he says, aspiring to "the absolute commitment to the emotion of the moment."
"It's very unhip, by the way, to do that," Gray said in an interview Saturday at a hotel on the Croisette. "There is no postmodern irony, which I'm sure is totally infuriating to some. What lasts is what we're talking about. What lasts is extending our sympathies. That, to me, is what lasts."
Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant who arrives at New York's Ellis Island (shot on location) in 1921 with her sister. After her sister is sent to the infirmary, Cotillard's character is taken in by a pimp (Phoenix), who puts her to work in his cabaret show.
Predictions for "The Immigrant," which the Weinstein Co. will release at an unknown date, have ranged from Oscar glory to awards afterthought. In Gray's classical, handsomely photographed approach, inspired by Puccini's "Suor Angelica" opera, critics have either gone with its intimate story of American passage, or they haven't.
Gray, whose films include "We Own the Night" and "Little Odessa," has become accustomed to dividing audiences. His reputation for years was greater in France than in his native United States.
That has gradually ebbed, but the baritone, intense Gray still feels somewhat out of step in a culture rife with irony and detachment.
"I don't think they're right," says Gray. "I think they're wrong. I think in the long run, the embracing of a kind of distancing, distanced, condescending approach to characterization, broken up — that's all bull----. And I think history will judge it terribly."
Gray, who also co-wrote the '70s crime film "Blood Ties" that premiered out of competition earlier in the festival, was inspired to make "The Immigrant" by his grandparents, both immigrants from Ukraine. Though they made a decent life for themselves in the U.S., Gray observed their melancholy for their home.
"I used to think to myself about my grandmother: 'Your parents were beheaded in front of you. Why is it that you pine for that?'" says Gray. "But that told me that it was complicated. It's not easy."
"The Immigrant" seeks to puncture the myth of the American dream: It's promoted in the film by a magician, played Jeremy Renner. The film is neither a story of immigrants finding a glorious land of freedom or of being corrupted by cutthroat American life, but a combination of both.
"What I wanted to say is not that the American dream is bogus — because it's not in many ways — but it's a dream that requires struggle," says Gray, who notes the film has obvious contemporary resonance to today's immigration issues.
His greatest influence, he says, is another classically-minded filmmaker who took up grand American themes: Francis Ford Coppola. Gray, who saw "Apocalypse Now" as a 10-year-old, says, "I kind of owe my entire love of the medium to him."
But whether "The Immigrant" will be the film that finally catapults Gray to greater renown may not have been answered at Cannes.
"At a certain point, you have to just raise the white flag and say, well, people have 'this' in mind about what a movie should be and you have your own view," says Gray. "Either the world comes around to you or they don't."