REVIEW ROUND-UP: ‘The Immigrant’ & ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ Wind Back Time

The ImmigrantJames Gray sounds like a director we should be more familiar with, but he just hasn’t made enough films that make a lasting impression. Not to say prior Cannes debuts like We Own the Night or Two Lovers aren’t great, but they’re small efforts from a director whose dramatic style has been pretty intimate so far. That’s often made Cannes the perfect landing pad for his work, so how has The Immigrant been holding up?

@JonathanRomney: THE IMMIGRANT: the Snoring 20s.
@daveyjenkins: Luxe Hollywood classicism of the oldest school, but like a 3rd tier Terence Davies movie. Left me cold.
@guylodge: THE IMMIGRANT (B+/A-) Fifty shades of Gray. Silent romance with words, not that the leads need them. Nykvistian imagery. Floored by finale.

Needless to say Gray’s going for a different 1920s New York love triangle than Baz Luhrmann lavished on with The Great Gatsby. Manhattan is given a much uglier look in Gray’s film about an immigrant forced into prostitution, with Marion Cotillard playing said immigrant Sonya and James Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix playing the nasty man controlling her life. Jeremy Renner’s also in the clockwork as a magician aspiring to save Sonya from her life of struggle.

The ImmigrantNot everyone’s totally charmed by The Immigrant, but the fact that it’s been so divisive says enough about how strong the reactions are that it raises. Jessica Kiang of The Playlist notes that the film may take its precious time, but that time is spent preciously.

With the focus so tightly on the three principals (and really more just on the lead two) there are times when the film feels a little airless, and despite the local color there is little social context and few generalized insights into the immigrant experience to be had. And again, we warn you, it moves slowly, carefully, step-by-step. But Gray is a filmmaker we love, and all the best qualities of his intelligent style are here in abundance. Sometimes we feel like that self-same intelligence can constrain him from relinquishing just a little of his self-control and coloring outside the lines, though, and so it feels here. “The Immigrant” is contained, restrained, thoughtful filmmaking that satisfies on nearly every level, except for the desire for a little chaos.

Peter Debruge of Variety is just as enthused, especially by Marion Cotillard’s performance that might be amongst her very best.

Gray clearly sees something in Cotillard that no other helmer — not even her husband, Guillaume Canet — has brought out in her before. Recognizing the deep, haunted quality of Cotillard’s gaze, he features her eyes as the soul of his story, counting on their mournful quality to play to the back of the house, even as he resists unnecessary closeups in favor of broad-canvas widescreen as much as possible. Likewise, he seems unconcerned with the immediate payoff of camera placement (although he frames the meticulously researched sets like old photographs and supplies a whopper of a final shot), making choices that serve the performances and support the cumulative impact.

On the other end of the spectrum, Davey Jenkins at Little White Lies was left cold by Gray’s classically approached film.

Gray has clearly attempted to make a movie whose dynamics are rooted in classical Hollywood filmmaking, but in doing so has made his own work look deficient by comparison. He lacks the passion and verve of someone like Terence Davies who is able to filter through the universal poetics of antiquated material. And in terms of grappling with the exploitation that women can face when arriving in unknown lands and opting to consort with strange men, this is vastly inferior to Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. Some in Cannes are haling the film a masterpiece, as a shoe-in for the Palme d’Or. Either I’ve entirely missed a different, coherent and headily romantic masterwork – I’m not seeing the stupendous forrest for all the withered, crooked trees – but this movie left me utterly cold.

Michael KohlhaasArnaud des Pallieres’ latest film, meanwhile, takes us even further back to the 16th century. Michael Kohlhaas follows a prosperous house merchant who resorts to crime and violence after an injustice is done upon him, and once again features last year’s Best Actor winner Mads Mikkelsen. It’s a premise that doesn’t jump off the page, and critics say it doesn’t jump much off the screen either. Jay Weissberg of Variety found himself more entranced by the locations than by anything else.

In 1969, when Volker Schlondorff made his “Michael Kohlhaas,” he added newsreel footage on the European release prints showing student protests around the world. The device served to make direct parallels between the novella’s themes and the unrest of ’68, highlighting the continued vitality of a tale featuring a morally upright figure resisting the corrupting influences of power. Kleist himself, a determinedly political author writing in 1808, used the based-on-fact case to draw comparisons with Napoleon’s thirst for dominance. Oddly given the richness of the theme, helmer Pallieres seems more inspired by landscape than by history or any contemporary resemblances.

Jordan Mintzer at The Hollywood Reporter is similarly mixed on the film, wishing for deeper themes from a film that’s most concerned with what it looks like.

As juicy as that sounds, des Pallieres, making his third feature after two well-regarded medium-length films (particularly Disneyland, mon vieux pays natal), is less interested in pulling off a French-language Game of Thrones than in creating a moody and atmospheric costume drama — one that excels in its gorgeous settings, impressive horse stunts and intricately lit widescreen cinematography (by Jeanne Lapoire, A Castle in Italy), but fails to build sufficiently interesting characters, and a dramatic enough arc, to carry it through a rather plodding two-hour running time.

Jonathan Romney at Screen Daily felt Mads Mikkelsen’s screen talents were squandered on a role that didn’t have much to do.

Part of the problem lies with des Pallières failing to make interesting use of Mikkelsen, who never does much more than use his steely gaze to play Kohlhaas as a Clint Eastwood avant la lettre. Other support players add life, and generally look every inch the period part – notably Duran, Bruno Ganz and Mélusine Mayance as Kohlhaas’s young daughter. Martin Wheeler contributes a terrific mediaeval-themed score heavy with drones and drums, and Jean-Pierre Duret’s sound design is one of the film’s aces. But generally, the film comes across as solemn rather than stately, and laden with so much gravitas that it never really gets off the ground.

So while The Immigrant may have the slightest chance at the Palme, along with Marion Cotillard for Best Actress, Michael Kohlhaas seems to be more of a visual attraction than an actual competitor. I’d say their Palme odds are, respectively, 8.6/10 and 4.3/10. That leaves just one more day of competition premieres ahead, so stay in touch and don’t let us go!

Lea Seydoux, Adele Exarchopoulos, Cannes

‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos.

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Palme d’Or Predictions

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