This is the first film I’ve seen by James Gray. I’ve been aware of his growing reputation and have been curious. This one has prestige picture written all over it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a Best Picture nomination in the Oscars. It’s beautifully crafted, serious-minded, empathetic, well-acted, patient, exact, and perhaps, to my genre-addled mind, mildly dull. IMDb hopefully tags this as Drama/Mystery/Romance/Thriller. I must have missed the Mystery/Thriller part, and even Romance is a bit of a misnomer. My friend Luke labelled it a melodrama, which seems more accurate. At heart it’s about a woman’s suffering.
It’s actually a fairly traditional story, focusing on a woman who is forced into prostitution by a man who harbors feelings for her. Ewa (wonderfully played by Marion Cotillard) is a Polish immigrant, and Bruno (Joaquim Phoenix) is a Jewish pimp. The evocation of the scurvier parts of New York in the 1920s is lovingly done and very convincing. Bruno runs an underground cabaret that serves illegal liquor and topless dancing women to an audience of middle class men. The cabaret serves as an advertisement for the women, who are also offering sex for money, with Bruno taking his cut. We see him slowly trap Ewa into becoming a prostitute, using her desire to save her tubercular sister from immigration purgatory as a lever against her devout Catholic morals and guilt. I appreciate that Gray has taken pains to show how tawdry the situation is and how conflicted and desperate all the characters are, even though the basic set-up of the fallen woman seeking redemption feels a bit shop worn.
It’s to the movie’s credit that it lives up to the title and keeps the focus on Ewa and her stubborn willingness to do whatever it takes to save her sister. Bruno and his raffish cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), are the other legs in a triangle that isn’t about love so much as perhaps need, with the needs being different between different sides of the triangle. A conflict erupts, and I suppose it could almost be called thrillerish, because it does involve a gun. The violence almost seems incidental, however. Mostly it’s a character study, and mostly the character we’re studying is Ewa’s. There are no villains or heroes here, which is another way you can tell it’s not a genre story. It’s about the messy, ugly process of survival in an uncertain world and about the underbelly of the American Dream.
It’s classical story-telling, with great production values. I thought the weakest part was Bruno’s big “I’m nothing” speech at the end, which felt like strident Oscar fodder. I found the whole thing a bit too sober and not dreamy enough for the Dreamland Cafe, but that’s just me. Really, I could probably watch Marion Cotillard feeling conflicted all day long, especially lit by gas lamps. Maybe that makes me part of Ewa’s problem?