Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa , The Yards , and We Own the Night ), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.
The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.
Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.
It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow under the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.
The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.
The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.
A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.
“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.
For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.
Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.