May 19, 2014
This is one puzzling movie. In general, I enjoy the films of James Gray, a director who likes to tell intimate family dramas about mostly immigrant New Yorkers (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers).
His films are of small scope but big emotional gestures, modest but solid. This time, he transports us to early 1920's Ellis Island, where two Polish sisters have just arrived with thousands of aspiring immigrants. One of the sisters is sick and coughing, and gets separated from Ewa (Marion Cotillard). Ewa is denied entry on the grounds of loose morals (which is rather rich coming from the deeply corrupt authorities) and plucked out of the deportation line by a Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises to give her a job as a seamstress. It turns out he is a burlesque emcee and a pimp who trolls Ellis Island to find girls for his revue. And she has no choice but to stick with him.
The story is old fashioned and has the trappings of grand melodrama. In La Cotillard's performance, it has a heroine who is traumatized, innocent, but a shrewd survivor.
The amber toned cinematography by Darius Khondji seems to suspend everything in a dusty past. The movie is slow and heavy like molasses.Casting Joaquin Phoenix as a Jewish two-bit impresario does not help. There is nothing about him that feels vaguely from New York, (he seems to have just arrived from Hollywood and Vine) but he is, as usual, riveting. He is a good ham, he makes quirky choices, he has some good moments. I could watch him snore and be mesmerized, but he seems rather uneven and adrift in the part. I think of Paul Giamatti or Stanley Tucci, or even Adrian Brody: someone who screams old New York. Jeremy Renner, who plays Bruno's cousin, a Houdini wannabe and rival for Eva's affection, tries to dazzle, but also seems wrong. In general, the main characters are thinly sketched. The only one who is busy filling in the blanks with more layers than anyone has any reason to expect is Marion Cotillard.
She seems as fragile, scared, traumatized and stubborn as she is supposed to be. She is a great silent actress, but she is also capable of acting persuasively both in Polish and English, none of which are her native language. She also happens to be stunning, and Khondji lights her beautifully. Whether she's tired and gaunt and without makeup, or made up like a floozy, you cannot take your eyes off her. She is so good, I can't think of anybody else in the part.
The story sounds good on paper: A crook falls for a defenseless woman he intends to use for profit and she ends up changing him. They are both reluctant to fall under each other's spell. I suspect that a lot of what feels inactive has to do with a script that tells us about bad stuff that happened, yet we don't get to see it. We are told things we already know, we are told by the other girls that Weiss is in love with her. We only see this clearly towards the end, in a scene where he listens in to her confessing to a priest, and he has a realization that he is destroying her. Then he confesses to her something that we knew from the beginning. There is no momentum. The actions are broad and melodramatic, but they seem imposed on the characters, not earned by force of personality. It was unclear to me if Ewa was that innocent, or if she used her innocence to preserve herself. I was not sure if she was equally repelled and attracted by Weiss, but sparks should have flown while they only sputter. I still enjoyed the really old fashioned story, the mournful music, the way Gray summons the convoluted and hypocritical morals of the day, but I kept wondering why such a big, redemptive drama feels so confined and airless.