Words Matter: James Gray on The Immigrant


By Adam Nayman

I won’t write too much about The Immigrant here, as Adam Cook has already ably reviewed the film (in Cinema Scope 55) and because for once, James Gray doesn’t seem to lack for champions closer to home than his usual Parisian cheering section. That The Immigrant has been warmly embraced by the North American critical establishment (certainly more so than We Own the Night [2007] and Two Lovers [2008]) can be seen as a positive sign for those of us who’ve long valued this filmmaker’s meticulously made yet emotionally plangent movies—maybe even more so since reviewers have in some cases had to do some legwork to find out whether or not the film was even playing in their city. The vagaries of commercial film distribution in North America could be the subject of a great modern melodrama, and I can’t understand why a movie featuring an Oscar winner (Marion Cotillard), a multiple-time nominee (Joaquin Phoenix), and a goddamned Avenger (Jeremy Renner) as its three main stars has taken a year since its Cannes bow to show up on theatre screens—and then not very many of them at all, and with little advance fanfare. The strange fragility of Gray’s auteur status in the United States leads to a lot of inflated rhetoric around his work, but The Immigrant (like its predecessors) weathers the hype just as adroitly as the scorn; claims that the director has finally made his masterpiece are both fair enough (I can’t really see any flaws in this movie) and also far loftier than anything that’s actually onscreen. A uniquely and ultimately brilliantly structured film that stays resolutely close to one character while gradually allowing space for another—her antagonist and sometimes tormentor—to move to the heart of the story, The Immigrant is worth seeing, reading about, and talking about. And its director is always a good interview.

Cinema Scope: The Immigrant has been compared to silent melodrama, and it’s set in a time period where melodrama was really beginning to inflect cinema; while there are no cinemas or scenes of cinema-going in the film, it seems to me that the style of the film connects very closely to its setting.

James Gray: Of course! I didn’t set the movie in that period by accident. I agree with what you’re saying and it’s a fair observation. It comes out of an operatic tradition, from the verismo movement around the turn of the previous century, until opera died almost overnight in 1925. But what you’re talking about, whether it’s Lillian Gish or Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)that sort of woman’s melodrama is something that silent cinema did especially well. Apropos of nothing, for no reason at all, two nights ago I watched Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) which I hadn’t seen for maybe 30 years, and while the male character is extremely important the film is nothing without Janet Gaynor’s performance, which is completely empathetic and beautiful in that same tradition. The movie is not afraid of emotion at all. The movie becomes transcendent because of it. My movie steals from these traditions, because you want to steal from the best. That’s a good strategy, I think.

Scope: I thought that the melodramatic elements bumped up against the very contemporary quality of your other movies, and that there was an interesting tension in that: seeing a story with these long, clean dramatic lines get a recognizably modern treatment in terms of character motivation and acting technique.

Gray: What you’re talking about…I know it’s there and I appreciate the observation, but I never think that I’m going to do something because it’s not common or fashionable. All I think about is what I can do with material that I’m emotionally connected to at the time. It might sound hopelessly banal but it’s true…Anyway, I learned long ago that you can never predict what’s going to be in fashion or not. When you’re doing something fashionable that means it won’t be so in two years, and if you’re unfashionable then maybe you’ll set a new trend. I generally think that what’s in fashion is fleeting and I don’t want to make something that dates very quickly. I just try to do an emotionally honest film as best I can. If you feel that way that’s great, and if you feel it’s modern in some ways that’s great too, but the modern approach I’ve tried to employ is not really based on modernity in the sense of deconstruction. I’ve tried to achieve modernity through psychological complexity, through the approach to theme and characterization.

Scope: You shoot Marion Cotillard like those silent-movie heroines, but she has more agency in the plot and she also has the ability to express how she feels about her situation and herself—she reveals herself through her face but also through her words and actions, which is where that sense of an updated presentation really comes through.

Gray: What you’re addressing rather directly is how the film steals some of the poetry of silent cinema and combines it with some of that post-’60s approach to character and theme. But while deconstruction is of great value, it can never start with the artist. Deconstruction starts with you: the writer, the critic, the viewer. It’s a form of analysis. We do the best thinking we can on these subjects; we try to imbue the film with a certain complexity that might not have been present in a production from 1926. After we do that, though, it leaves us and it’s no longer ours. It’s yours to analyze how and where it sits in the field.

Scope: You’re saying that it’s hard for you to answer some of these more critically oriented questions, or to put yourself in the position of deconstruction occupied by a critic. Is it easier for you to talk about the movie if the questions are more general?

Gray: I don’t quite understand why people love to ask me about critics. I’ve been asked many times about it. I try to have a sense of humour about it and that doesn’t get translated into print at all. That’s one of the things I’ve learned about talking about this stuff. If you tell a joke people take it seriously. I once said, “Movies are not like barium enemas, you don’t want to get them over with as quickly as possible.” I can’t tell you how many people jumped on me for that and I had to say I was kidding. I don’t mind talking about critics at all. I can’t spend a lot of time thinking about my place in cinema or how the films are received…it’s literally impossible for me to do that. If I had that distance then the distance would show up in the movie itself and that’s exactly what I don’t want to happen.

My whole ambition is to make something that has no wall of distance, no irony. In order to break that barrier, I have to block everything else out, whether it’s noise or not. But at the same time, I should say that I am deeply grateful to the critical establishment in the US for supporting this film. Without them, nobody would know that the film exists. That sort of exchange is great but it can’t be the reason you make a film. I would say that part of the challenge of being a director is you spend all of this time marshalling the troops and trying to get the damn thing made, which is all about drive and ego and will, but then you have to forget your ego and become humble so you can absorb all of the feedback that you get from the actors, the cinematographer, and everyone in that process. And you have to be humble when the film comes out because when that happens it’s not yours anymore.

Scope: You mentioned wanting to have a lack of distance, and yet this is your first film that’s not set in the present day, and which features a main female protagonist. Given those differences—and those distances—what was your entry point into this particular story?

Gray: This is extremely important. I want to make a distinction between the facts of the case—a woman, a Polish immigrant, 1921, Ellis Island—and differentiate that from what is beneath that story. Someone who is always beating herself up over sin or perceived sins; someone who is doing everything that she can to survive or cope; someone who is dealing with an unhealthy co-dependent relationship. So there is a difference between the surface of the film and what’s at the core of the character, and I identify with both of the main characters—with Ewa and Bruno—very directly. I mean, I’m filled with self-hate. I cannot stand to look at pictures of myself, to read things I’ve said, to watch myself. It’s embarrassing. I mean, I look like a complete jerk! That feeling of self-hate, which is not the same thing as self-pity, by the way, is personal. It’s autobiographical and I put it into both characters. It’s the way into the story for me. The rest is really window dressing. Usually, the conversations I have about the film are about the fact that it’s set in 1921, that it was shot at Ellis Island, and that’s all good, it makes me happy, I love that stuff. But it’s not the reason I did any of it. The reason I made the movie is I wanted to show a co-dependent relationship that sort of destroys two people, even though they need each other. They need each other for the wrong reasons.

Scope: In We Own the Night and to a lesser extent Two Lovers, Joaquin Phoenix plays men who change over the course of the film—who discover something about themselves and the sort of person that they really are, and they wind up sort of far away from where they began. I’d say that happens in The Immigrant even though Bruno doesn’t seem to be the main character; or maybe it’s that by the end, we realize that’s he’s as much the protagonist of this story as Ewa is. He sort of comes into the foreground more and more strongly as the film goes along.

Gray: That was the intent. It’s a bit of a fake out. The movie is her point of view, but ultimately the person who is delivered at the end is Bruno.

Scope: When he sneaks into the church to overhear her confession, I was reminded of Phoenix hiding behind the door in Two Lovers…in both scenes, his character learns something about himself by overhearing somebody else’s story, or looking in on somebody else’s vulnerability.

Gray: One thing that really galls me is that we live in a very snarky culture. A lot of art cinema is bullshit. I think it’s bullshit because it’s the Artist—capital A—putting him or herself above the subject, above the character, above the narrative. It’s like, “I am going to show you every little doodle I ever did, without discipline or rigour or real thought put into it, or control or commitment, and I’m going to put it on the screen.” I wanted to say that we’re not better than other people. Nobody is better than anybody else. I’m not going to judge anybody. Everybody is worthy of love and respect and everybody has a chance at redemption and forgiveness. I think that’s the opposite of what’s in vogue in contemporary art cinema. And that was conscious, I think.

Scope: That belief in forgiveness is expressed in the film’s dialogue, which is quite direct; at the same time, there is a lot of subtlety in the writing. For instance, one of the key lines is Ewa saying, “I am not nothing,” which is not quite the same thing as saying, “I am something.” That seems connected to the feelings that you’re talking about.

Gray: Somebody sent me one of the reviews from Cannes and the critic had said that Ewa spends the movie running around saying, “I love money.” That’s not what she says. Bruno asks her, “You don’t like money?” And she says, “I like money, I don’t like you.” My friend asked me what’s the difference, it doesn’t matter, “I like money” or “I love money.” There is a difference. It’s not “To have been or not to have been,” for a reason. Words matter. “I am something” is a very self-possessed claim. “I’m not nothing” means something else. It means, “Please treat me with respect and love because I am a member of the human race.”

Scope: And when it’s spoken by one person to another—when it comes from “I am not nothing” to “You are not nothing”—there’s this very powerful sense of connection and continuity. It’s a transference of compassion from the self to the other, in this case another person who has done a lot of things that require significant forgiveness.

Gray: I think so. That’s an important idea to me. I think my parents did one very bad thing in raising me. They didn’t prepare me for the fact that the world is a very vicious place and most people don’t really think about others much. I see that tendency in myself, that narcissistic tendency. We’re all narcissists in one sense or another. I wanted to comment on that. I don’t want to narrow it down to “We’re all in it together,” but it’s actually close to that. And this snarky, ironic anger in the culture—American culture and British culture in the last 25 years—works against that.

Scope: “We’re in it together” is a cliché, yes, but it’s also figured quite seriously in the film. I thought that part of Bruno’s attraction to and obsession with Ewa—quite apart from any sexual dimension—was that he recognizes something of his own immigrant experience in her. You only allude to his entry into the US once, with his cousin, but it’s there in the script in other ways, like how everybody calls him a “kike”… Ewa’s immigrant narrative has more detail, but it’s not the only one in the film.

Gray: It’s why the title is very simple and weirdly ambiguous. It could refer to either of them. I’m curious about the Canadian reaction to the film, because they [sic] have a totally different response to immigrant culture than we do in the US.

Scope: Well in Canada—or in Europe—that first shot of the Statue of Liberty taken from behind, so that her back is to the camera, is probably going to be readable as a comment on America, and again as something that is about the period but also readable now. It’s a very legible shot, I would say.

Gray: I’m glad you like it. It’s funny though because I took that shot with a camera on the last day of the shoot. We were at Ellis Island and the crew was setting up and I ran out with an assistant and got the shot. It was just a matter of the weather being good and we managed to shoot it really quickly.

Scope: The first shot is very legible and direct, but the last shot of the film is truly remarkable: it distills so much of what the movie is about, and it’s also just visually stunning. I wonder how you achieved it, and if it was part of the movie’s design from the very beginning? It’s the endpoint of the story and it seems like the whole film has been built to arrive at it.

Gray: The last shot of the movie was always part of the design. It was in the original script. It’s not a shot that’s achievable practically. There are three different plates of visual effects in that shot. The idea behind it was that the movie becomes about both of those characters and the shot would mirror that. At the beginning of the film, in that first shot, we have him from behind—we only see his hat. And we see Lady Liberty from behind, which is what Ewa becomes—the Lady Liberty costume later on in the stage show. So at the end of the movie, they both have to be there, and they’re both leaving. The little boat seen through the window, that was green screen. The reflection of him in the glass walking away was also done with a plate. What I was trying to say is they both go off to uncertain futures, but there is hope. For Ewa but also for Bruno, because he really is a survivor. He can get out of it somehow. I have a weird confidence in his survival abilities.