TDirector: James Gray
Writer: Ric Menello and James Gray
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
by Susan Bartley
This is is a far more beautiful movie than it is story. If we stripped away Darius Khondji’s efforts I imagine this film would have received only half its measly amount of praise (which was tragic, as the film went ridiculously far beneath the radar). The story involves a Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) who is recruited by a New York City pimp, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), after her sister was quarantined at Ellis Island due to lung disease. Bruno convinces Ewa to join his pornographic vaudeville show and even sooner discovers that most of the women are prostitutes, forcing her into the same.
One thing that didn’t sit well with me was Ewa’s sister, who really just seemed like a convenient way to get her into prostitution. She crops again here and there, but I never really cared about her, given how little I knew about her situation. I especially didn't care whether or not Ewa rescued her. All I care about is discovering how far down the rabbit hole Bruno is going to send Ewa, with the sister serving solely the purpose of introducing this journey, abandoned until convenient.
There’s also something a bit too passive about Ewa, who really appears as though she’s going along with everything because she doesn’t know any better. It was a very condescending way to shoot the role and I’m not sure if I’d blame Gray for not seeing the problem, or Cotillard for playing Ewa with more awareness and intelligence. I’m half Polish, from the Midwest, and therefore completely understand how some people can view foreign Poles (or any foreign Eastern European). I think that his movie meets those stereotypes in an intentionally deliberate way. It’s not that I was offended. I just didn’t think it was doing anything new.
Joaquin Phoenix puts on yet another amazing performance, which is worth the viewing alone. If I leave a movie not knowing how I feel about a character then the actor did a phenomenal job. Was Bruno actually all that bad, or was he also a victim of circumstance? Phoenix plays him with such a friendly and trusting manner that I was constantly drifting back and forth in my judgment. It would have been so easy to play this character with a constant wink of the eye toward the audience as he drags Ewa further along, or - counter to that - falling far too far into the darkness.
Yet beyond the photography, the performances, and the story I’m still a little lost for what I was suppose to take from the film. People do bad things. They don’t do them because they want to, but out of circumstance. Some people want to be good and can't, others just want to do the right thing, no matter the cost. It’s a great film with some solid performances and absolutely breathtaking photography, but if you strip all that away I'm not really sure what you're left with.
I saw James Gray on Huffington Post live, doing an interview about the film, and I recall him prefacing the interview with something along the lines of, “If I dare use the word ‘artist’...”, then proceeding to dare-away and refer to himself as such to defend his points. Oh, how I resent this phrasing. If you’re going to use the word, use the thing; don't purple it up. And it was only when listening to his Brett Easton Ellis podcast, when he said the same exact thing, going even further and referring to himself as an auteur (pronounced as pretentiously as required for a self-proclamation), that I really became frustrated. Again, with not having the exact quote, I recall him saying that if he must - be forced to - really has to call himself an auteur, then he will and proceeded to talk at length about what that means for the material, which didn't really enlighten me anymore than the film itself. It made me think of John Frankenheimer on the Auteur Theory (see below) that it really hit me hard - if you’re going to think of yourself as something then just do it and get it over with, but to add false modesty to the equation, which when stripped away, is about as self-absorbed as you can get, well then, that's a load of bullshit and makes the work less interesting. The reason I bring this up is because I think there’s always a correlation between the arrogance it takes to use such language and the type of material they create. Either you are the best and have every right to use the word, which he doesn’t, or oftentimes the work just isn’t that substantial to warrant such a lofty statement. I enjoyed the film. I just don’t think that I was watching capital-A Art that was any better than other better than good, but not great film. Then again, 2013 was one of the great years of cinema, so maybe it was simply that competition was fierce.
BELOW: John Frankenheimer on the Auteur Theory (and many others since I can't find the original clip)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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