Directed by James Gray
Released in 2014
A title like The Immigrant, announced in large, white-on-black text that bookends the first and last frames of the film, casts a wide net. America is a nation of immigrants, we are told, and so a movie with such a bold, generic name should aspire to convey that common experience. Thick accents, obscure diseases, the Statue of Liberty. The Immigrant has all that, as would your Hallmark movie or Oscar-tuned period piece. But what makes The Immigrant a great film — certainly a highlight of the year so far, especially amid this artistically bankrupt season — is how it so studiously and tenderly trains it focus on its suffering protagonist. She does not stand in for some broad concept of the archetypal American immigrant; she is only herself, and a tormented, fully realized person full of contradictions she is.
Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island after a long voyage from Poland. It is 1921, and the Great War wasted her country and family. All she has is her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), and even then not for long, since Magda looks ill from the moment we first see her and the callous doctors there herd her along into quarantine. Only five minutes in, Ewa has already felt hope and suffered loss, a cycle that will recur throughout the film. We catch a quick shot of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) eyeing Ewa from afar, and so we know why he swoops in to sponsor her, before the officials can deport her. The high of finding a friend, with money and resources, gives way to unease when he shames her into dancing at his cabaret club and, quietly but insistently, coerces her into prostitution.
The conflict of this film boils down to a modern woman trying to survive in pre-modern times. To paraphrase Amy Poehler, no one plans on being a prostitute. Before she hits the pillow her first night in Bruno’s apartment, Ewa instinctively grabs a blade from a coal bucket by her bed. The camera follows this movement so naturally, smoothly that we immediately grasp Ewa’s history, fear and sense of self-worth — no dialogue necessary. Ewa stands erect, alert, with her arms to her sides and eyes darting from face to face. She does not enter America fooling herself that she has now found peace; she arms herself from the beginning. As both Bruno and the girls in his company push her to loosen up, and as she faces a steep price to save her ailing sister, she begins to drop her guard. She loses herself in absinthe and sees an advantage in returning Bruno’s clammy gestures of courtship. She opens herself up, and yet she is adamant when she says, “I am not nothing,” to a kowtowing prostitute. Marrying agency with prosperity — in her situation, with her acquaintances, with her looks — is a quixotic dream.
If this all sounds sad, know that the movie is, yeah, quite sad. But it’s not cheap, nor is it fake. Director James Gray (We Own the Night) takes cues from melodrama but restrains himself. Chris Spelman’s emotional score stays quiet, never drowning a moment. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour, Midnight in Paris) absorbs all the rich period detail before him with filmic grain and lots of haze, not unlike Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis last year. But Gray never force-feeds us this beauty or makes, say, an establishing shot of Manhattan’s Lower East Side an event in itself. Many bustling shots that ostensibly required a lot of planning last no longer than a couple seconds. I am reminded of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, or at least what the great critic Dave Kehr said of it: “A brief glance is all we are given of a particular composition, and then Malick is off to something else, rarely granting us the leisure to contemplate and assimilate the images he puts before us.” Here, this briskness affords this two-hour film a tremendous pace, which never sags and does not seem to waste a frame. Most importantly, this inspired editing style, executed by John Axelrad and Kayla Emter, burrows us into Ewa’s head: The color, noise and stench of the city overpower her, but she can’t be bothered. She’s got other matters to sort out.
Marion Cotillard has long been a captivating screen presence and her Ewa may just be her most lived-in performance yet. There is a moment of transcendence when Ewa, in centered close-up, pours her soul out to a priest during confession. Either the camera lifts slightly up or she drops her head slightly down, but even as we see less of her face and all the business on it, her voice gains volume and we sense all that latent strength inside. The camera flirts with a god’s point of view before returning to its original, centered composition. This incredible cinematic moment takes a stereotypical sign of weakness — a woman baring herself, sins and all — and redirects it back to Ewa, for her to re-affirm her right to happiness without a god thumbing his nose in disapproval. This is how a film earns its sincerity.
With his co-star from The Master no longer with us, Joaquin Phoenix has a claim to the throne of greatest living (and working) actor. “Damaged” is a word applicable to almost any performance of his, and here we are reminded also of how unpredictable he can be. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Gray lets him move around the frame or else follow him with tracking shots. He explodes one moment and drops to a forlorn whisper the next. Bruno Weiss reminds me of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, in how Phoenix enchants us to sympathize with a psychopath, even while we are fully aware of how manipulative and violent he can be. Bruno, like all memorable literary characters, is complicated.
Bruno’s rage contrasts with the romantic ease of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a handsome magician who falls for Ewa when he firsts see her and throws a life raft, to a perfect life, her way. But where a sappy film would raise him as some angel next to Bruno the brute, Emil boasts in the face of his enemies and believes his own pathological lies. Most worryingly, he never asks Ewa for her input on really anything at all, and certainly not on their plan to run away together to the west. He promises a paradise only possible in his head, an ideal conglomeration of the American Dream and Manifest Destiny that this film patiently, and never snobbishly, disowns.
Ewa will go down as a classic character of the movies. The America before her presents an abundance of options: it’s just that they all seem to barrel down to similar outcomes. Life with Bruno, or life with Emil? That’s not really the question here. She just wants to be happy, something she vocalizes at one point, something we are not sure is even possible. But The Immigrant is open, alive and humble enough that none of this comes across as doom-and-gloom cynicism. It closes with one of those staggeringly perfect final shots, the particulars I will leave for you to discover. Know that it, in my mind, aspires to depict the Heraclitus aphorism that “the path up and down are one and the same.” It surrenders to interpretation, and it is a rare thing when a film can leave so much unfinished and still seal a silencing, spiritual closure.
4.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.