Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Immigrant

(James Gray, France/US, 2014)

A deeply felt and gorgeously rendered film, but one that nonetheless, sadly, disappoints.  Gray is most easily categorized as a classicist, but his emphasis on raw emotion - chaotic, sincere, naked emotion - and acute psychological depth makes him much more than a craftsman in thrall to any single tradition.  But he is still a craftsman, and the fascination and frustration I derive from his work seems to obtain from the strange friction he generates by simultaneously revering classical conventions and working in his own, idiosyncratic world.

I was in and out of the story of The Immigrant.  It might be that Gray is too enamored of the elegance he sees in Golden Age masterworks; the story plods along at times, and threatens to veer into stilted sentimentality.  It's all so damn sincere.  There is a discomfiting innocence about the movie, and it grows out of the characters, and I can't tell if Gray actually shares it or he's committing the grave artistic and moral sin of regarding the past with a kind of precious naivete - the "simpler times" fallacy.  I don't mean that the characters are simple - far from it - but the world is painted in such stark terms, the stakes so immediately obvious and familiar, that it almost isn't enough that the characters are depicted with such deftness, their tortured psyches revealed painstakingly and with unmistakable love.

Perhaps it's the lack of any true villains.  Perhaps it's the fact the Eva - while utterly captivating in her quiet, almost statuesque dignity - isn't a terribly active character, and her transparent goodness, despite the occasional flashes of anger and guilt, is never really challenged.  For all of his somberness, it might just be that Gray is too optimistic about his characters.

It has to be said; there's a corniness to Gray.  Part of his appeal is in his owning of that corniness; his courageous willingness to lay open his heart and the way that it bleeds for his characters.  But for all of his commitment to emotional authenticity, he is a filmmaker who is perhaps just a bit too enamored of convention.  The world he depicts is so distant, and so loaded with potential cliche, that he appears to falter.

But the emotional commitment is unstinting, and the world he creates, one of shadows and stage-lights and worn surfaces, with the strange admixture of hope and despair, is a genuinely powerful accomplishment.  It's a film I'll be revisiting, and which I suspect will contain new insights and layers of experience. 

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