Lowlife article from Jordan Mintzer
The Paris-based New Yorker Jordan Mintzer, whose superb and sumptuous book of interviews with the director James Gray and his artistic collaborators came out late last year, returns to the fray with a report (published today in Libération) from the set of Gray’s new film, which is being shot mainly in the confines of Kaufman Astoria Studios, in Queens. The movie, which as of yet is untitled, is set in 1921, and concerns a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) who arrives on the Lower East Side, where, according to Mintzer, she is caught between a cabaret owner/whoremonger (Joaquin Phoenix) and a magician (Jeremy Renner) who wants to rescue her. The story of the shoot is remarkable—beginning with the fact that it was realized on a low budget, despite the elaborate on-set period reconstructions and costumes. The return to the screen of Phoenix is also cause for celebration—his work with Gray in “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” and, especially, “Two Lovers” was so powerful that I didn’t quite believe his retirement.
Gray speaks with Mintzer about his desire “to put this woman at the center, to distance myself from any macho perspective.” Gray talks about the film’s conjoined narrative and moral focus, saying, “I wanted to put this woman at the center, to distance myself from any macho perspective,” and explaining that he intended the film to be “another attempt to analyze the patriarchy, but, this time, head-on.” Mintzer reports on the film’s visual schema, which Gray based in significant measure on paintings by Everett Shinn and George Bellows, and quotes the cinematographer, the great Darius Khondji, regarding Gray’s attention to photographs by the Italian architect Carlo Mollino as a source for “the perfect texture for filming the grain of the skin, and the kind of lighting which would give the ensemble a sort of religious aspect.” The religious element recurs in another one of Gray’s key references—to Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest.”
There is, Gray explains, an element of family history in the film, arising from stories about one of his great-grandfathers, who ran a bar in that era: “The bar was supposedly frequented by a whole bunch of gangsters, bohemians, and eccentrics, and my great-aunt often spoke to me about a certain Max Hochsten, who was the local pimp.” Yet Mintzer, looking at the way that Patricia Norris (a veteran of “The Elephant Man,” “Lost Highway,” “Days of Heaven,” and Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”), detects an extraordinary visual transfiguration of history at work, citing
a luminosity and airiness in the way that the actors appear on-screen, doubtless reflecting the filmmaker’s desire to distance himself from the formal realism of his previous films in order to seek out the element of myth.
This movie was already one of my most eager anticipations of the upcoming season (there’s no word on when it’s expected to be completed and premièred) and Mintzer’s report further stokes impatience.