by Kathie Smith
James Gray’s The Immigrant hits notes of romanticism from the very first frame, colored with a nostalgic antiquity circa 1921 and accompanied by a sweeping soundtrack of strings. This is not, however, the romance of Merchant Ivory, but of hard knocks, exploitation, and suffering that mark the American immigrant experience. The movie opens with a view of the Statue of Liberty in the distance, a symbol of what people have come for but, from the perspective of the approach from across the Atlantic, ambivalent to the hopeful people clinging to desperate dreams. Men, women, and children file into the immigration station and wait in lines as their health is inspected, their papers scrutinized, and their character judged. Two of those people are Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is trying to stifle her cough as doctors start to make their way through the line. Likely keen to her furtive fearful glances, the doctors pull her away from Ewa only to be diagnosed with tuberculosis and held in a purgatorial status at the Ellis Island hospital. To make matters worse, Ewa—left to move on without Magda—is accused of exhibiting “low morals” on the ship from Europe (which easily reads that she was raped) and is rejected for deportation.
Director: James Gray
Producers: James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Greg Shapiro, Christopher Woodrow
Writers: James Gray, Ric Menello
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
Music: Christopher Spelman
Editor: John Axelrad, Kayla Emter
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Angela Sarafyan, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Elena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Ilia Volok,
Premiere: May 24, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 16, 2014
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
These opening moments use a light touch to portray the harrowing circumstances for Ewa: her emphatic assertion that they “will never go back” alludes to what she left behind but also to what it took to get to the place where she and her sister are now standing—sacrifices have been and will be made. When asked by the immigrations officer where she is from, Ewa’s blunt reply only gives her hometown and region of Silesia. Although the officer incredulously corrects her—“Poland”—buried in this dialogue is the chaos of post-World War I where rogue battles continued to define the borders of Poland despite the Treaty of Versailles. Silesia was a region bitterly fought over by the Germans and the Polish, and Ewa’s stern expression illustrates her acrimonious feelings for the fate of her homeland.
Ewa’s savior comes in the form of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a New Yorker with his own immigrant background who is on Ellis Island for some undefined business. He spots Ewa in a deportation line and agrees to bribe her way out for reasons that are suspicious to both the audience and Ewa—when she finally lays down to rest in a bed Bruno has offered her, she stashes a knife under her pillow before drifting off. As it turns out, Bruno, not so surprisingly, manages a group of prostitutes that masquerade as a cabaret show in a small club. He offers Ewa a sewing job, but notes that she will never afford to help her sister on those wages. And thus Gray puts his finger on the pulse of an American paradigm—oppression for capital gains—through a surprisingly wispy and personalized melodramatic lens.
The Immigrant transcends other period dramas by striking a dramatic balance between humanity and indifference, unafraid of wearing emotions so clearly on its sleeve with such rhapsodic beauty. Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has worked with David Fincher, Wong Kar Wai, Michael Haneke, and Woody Allen, the movie’s textured blacks and soft auras of light feel like a timely homage to Gordon Willis (cinematographer of The Godfather and Annie Hall, among others, who recently passed away) making a nice visual paring with prequel sequences in The Godfather II. But a definitive line can be drawn from the fearless filmmaking to the personal nature of Ewa’s story for Gray. As much as The Immigrant follows the earnest themes of Gray’s other movies, the narrative was inspired by the experience of Gray’s grandmother, coming to the U.S. from Russia also via Ellis Island in the early ‘20s, mentioning that the film is filled with “the ghosts of my whole family.”
The Immigrant, however, isn’t devoid of traditional storytelling apparatuses, most significantly with the arrival of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician who happens to be Bruno’s cousin. Something of a good-hearted snake oil salesman, Emil takes an interest Ewa drawing the ire of a very possessive Bruno. Much to their disappointment, Ewa’s loyalty remains with her sister, wanting only to earn enough money to buy her way out of quarantine—money, driven by familial devotion, taking a priority over a potential for romantic love. Bruno and Emil, having a certain amount of financial stability, seem to crave what money can’t buy: the affections of the steadfast Ewa. Just as Bruno and Emil are not superficially reduced villains, Ewa is most certainly not a victim and knowingly passes on the New World’s promise of “finding a good man.”
There is an undeniable undercurrent of corruption in The Immigrant that robs Bruno of meaningful relationships and denies Ewa her dignity—a heartbreaking vision of the American Dream where the desire to create a virtuous life perseveres through necessary blood, sweat, and tears. James Gray’s film finds an unlikely companion in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality, an autobiographical surrealist odyssey set in 1920s Chile that opens with a quote that applies equally to both narratives: “Money is like blood, it gives life if it flows.” Sharing intimate stories defined and manipulated by emerging economic realities, the two films diverge in their interpretation. As Jodorowsky flies into fantasy, Gray stays earthbound injecting the vivacity of life in the struggles and atmosphere of early 20th century New York City with a level of unapologetic poeticism. Nowhere in the film is this more pronounced than in the final moments—Bruno filled with regret and Ewa forgiveness—and a closing shot of swelling emotion that few filmmakers have the audacity to attempt.