Cannes: Critics All Over the Map on James Gray’s ‘Immigrant’ but Love Marion Cotillard

The period drama is either a wrenching masterpiece or a gloomy melodrama, depending on who you ask

The Cannes Film Festival really loves James Gray. But do viewers at the Cannes Film Festival really love James Gray‘s new movie, “The Immigrant?”

The answer, judging from the initial reactions coming from the South of France: Yes. And no.

The New York-based filmmaker has only made five movies, none of them commercial hits, but the last four – “The Yards” in 2000, “We Own the Night” in 2007, “Two Lovers” in 2008 and now “The Immigrant” – have all premiered in Cannes.

The immigrant“The Immigrant” screened on Friday, and one of the first reactions was a tweet from the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez. When the film ended, he said, he woman behind him in the theater said, “Now, that’s a movie!” The woman in front of him, meanwhile, sniffed, “I don’t understand the love for Gray.”

Set in New York in 1921, the film stars Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant and Joaquin Phoenix as a theater manager who pulls her into prostitution. The initial reactions almost all praised Cotillard, but opinions were all over the map about the movie itself, with some thinking Gray should clear a spot for the Palme d’Or and others calling it “a cheap imitation” of Elia Kazan’s movies.

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Calling the film “the most divisive film in Cannes competition,” Indiewire’s Eric Kohn concluded that the ravers and the naysayers both had a point: “Gray’s fifth directorial effort is a conflicting experience admirable and powerfully executed in parts, cold and meandering in others.”

In one corner of this particular debate, you had partisans like critic Robert Koehler, who tweeted that the film “immediately rises to the top of the Palme list. Possibly a masterpiece – think Kazan, Coppola, Davies.”

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In Contention’s Guy Lodge raved as well, calling Gray “one of the American cinema’s last true classicists” and summing up “The Immigrant” this way: “The resulting film is altogether extraordinary: a silent tragedy with words, at once boldly breaking form while reflecting all Gray’s passions and curiosities.”

Others in the plus camp included Todd McCarthy (“quietly wrenching” … “sensitively observed melodrama”) and Peter Debruge (“a romantic tale that cuts to the very soul of the American experience”).

But Screen’s Lee Marshall warned, “Scratch the good-looking, emotionally charged surface … and you find a rather stagey melodrama with religious overtones.”

And the AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo wrote, “[Gray is] doing a self-conscious approximation of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the result, while reasonably compelling, feels secondhand.”

While Jeff Wells conceded that it was “well-made” and “respectably authentic,” he also found that “the pace is slow and the story is a ho-hummer” – except for the third act, when “something happens … that betrays the audience’s collective hope … and sends the movie right down the drain.”

And the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw starts his review by called the film “gloomy and baffling,” and ends it with the phrase “shapeless and unsatisfying.”

But nobody knows what the Cannes jury thinks, and the film is certainly receiving attention; Facebook has reported that it was more frequently mentioned on the social-networking site than any other Cannes competition title in the last week.