“The things you do to survive.”
When melodramas work, they are a rather impressive feat. In classic cinema, melodramas were what audiences were eager to see, but decades later audiences aren’t wowed or engrossed by powerful performances and overwrought emotion. They seek substance in other departments, like plot structure, storytelling tricks, directorial gimmicks, visuals and world building. Melodrama still peaks through everywhere, but most modern audiences just aren’t in tuned with the classifications of such to identify its appearances. Still, the types of melodramas that reigned in the golden years of Hollywood don’t come about in the 21st Century because they more or less can no longer survive here. James Gray’s The Immigrant prevails at being such a melodrama, anchored by seamlessly heartbreaking work by actress Marion Cotillard and rich, inviting cinematography from Darius Khondji, gravitating us into an antiquated era that has long since passed. As the dreams of a Polish immigrant are shattered by the unspoken decrees of New York City’s cultural melting pot, two men with intertwined pasts put her fragility to the test by both promising her love and salvation. But as it goes to be shown, those who let their emotions get the best of them cannot survive, and for as beautiful as its aesthetics are, The Immigrant is not a very kind picture.
Drenched in a period piece atmosphere, the film begins with an imposing shot of the Statue of Liberty. Gray’s zoom out broadens our landscape and tells us all that we’ll need to know for the forthcoming 120 minutes: People are never whom they seem to be. The statue herself stands for a supposed promise, but liberty is a virtue that is easier dreamt about than ever acquired, and this is a fact that Cotillard’s Ewa Cybulski will come to know in the immediate future. She arrives on Ellis Island, excited to begin a new life with her sister, Magda. However, Magda is never granted entrance to the country. She’s caught tuberculosis while at sea and she must remain on the Island for the next six months and if she doesn’t get any better she will be deported back to Poland. Ewa is now on her own, intending on meeting up with her Aunt and Uncle who have already begun lives in New York City but are nowhere to be found. Worse yet, an emigration officer informs Ewa that she was noted to have ‘low moral standards’ during her passage overseas and she too is destined for deportation. Scared and confused, Ewa encounters the charming Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) whom she begs for help. He abides, without reason, and escorts Ewa back to his home in the Jewish section of early 1920’s New York City.
Bruno runs a burlesque speakeasy. He poses as a showrunner and does right by the girls he employs, but he moonlights as a pimp, against his own conflicted conscience. Ewa becomes his pride and joy, and before long he’s taken a deep liking to her. He feels for her and is swayed by her hesitance more than any of the other girls he oversees. He refuses to outwardly admit it, but the savior has fallen for his property. Ewa, meanwhile, is desperate to reunite with her sister. Upon returning to Ellis Island in hopes of finding her, she meets the dreamy Emile (Jeremy Renner), a stage performer more commonly referred to as Orlando the Magician. As coincidence would have it, Emile turns up at Bruno’s club hired by his partner to perform alongside Bruno’s famed lady troupe. Bruno finds this news infuriating. He knows Emile and has grown to despise him, though Emile attempts to keep things civil. But with Emile’s interests growing toward Ewa as well, Bruno begins to see him as a threat; Ewa’s future hangs in the balance between these two men, each promising polar opposite outcomes.
The Immigrant is simultaneously magical and furiously downbeat. It’s the strongest work that I’ve seen from James Gray yet (aside his seriously less-than-stellar cop drama, We Own the Night), strengthened by the irrefutable classic stylization. It has more in common with the works of D.W. Griffith than any other famed or contemporary filmmaker in which Gray could be indentured to or reference. It’s traditional moviemaking, definitive of a technique that has been revolutionized dozens of times over again, but that makes it no less phenomenal. Gray’s vision is to craft something that speaks exactly to those identifiable characteristics and he does so perfectly, directing a grinding melodrama that sneaks up on you visually and emotionally.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography is captivating, transporting viewers into a time period usually represented by dusty photos and screeching records, but also alluring us into an archetypal screen story that clearly hasn’t lost an iota of enticement in the 80 years that it’s been repeatedly manipulated by playwrights and screenwriters again and again. A deterring love triangle where choices are presented and for every correct one made, a single incorrect one levels our hopes and wishes substantially. Khondji’s golden photography glows throughout, and he works collaboratively with Gray to make a dazzling picture (the poetic final shot is one of the most impressive and poignant examples of camerawork I’ve seen recently; the take alone is demonstrative of Khondji’s mastery and Gray’s overall intentions) even when the script remains too outdated. For as perfectly formalized a picture as it is – render the film in black and white and it could be fooled for a lost silent era gem – its conventional tolerations are too old for modern audiences, regardless if Gray intends for them to be.
And so explains the early summer release date (a year after it debuted at Cannes), surely Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s own reservations are suspect. For a film so beloved when it toured the festival circuit, I am positive the film will struggle to find a modern audience. It’s too old-fashioned for any routine moviegoer and even while it runs in arthouse cinemas for a couple of weeks, more hip and accessible artistry will overshadow it like Only Lovers Left Alive, Fading Gigolo, Under the Skin, Palo Alto, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a shame, in all honesty, because Gray has fashioned his film like the classics that have paved the way for all that comes to town today, but only the watchers who have taken time to admire elder cinema will see the merits in Gray’s work. It will be bypassed and it will not do well, and the Weinstein’s are burying it even though the performances are strong enough to be widely regarded for award consideration.
The trifecta of A-grade actors at the center of the film all provide great work, but Marion Cotillard is so strong that less seasoned cinephiles might even overlook her attentive choices. A beauty of the modern age, who won an Oscar for resurrecting Edith Piaf in the gloomy La Vie en Rose, Cotillard expands upon her meta-casting from Midnight in Paris and embodies a European of the 1920s, drawing inspiration from a catalogue bookended by Lillian Gish and Ingrid Bergman. Per the legendary work championed by those actresses’ respective director partnerships – D.W. Griffith and Roberto Rossellini – Cotillard is revelatory in her subtle performance, emoting consistently throughout even when she has nothing more to work with than a glance. In many scenes, Cotillard simply looms, quietly contemplative of her desires and predicaments, faced with the angelic dreams of Renner’s Emile and the devilish requests of Phoenix’s Bruno. Humiliation percolates through the performance, emanated from sheer sadness; if the Academy can remember her work through the fall and winter, she’s also got a prime Oscar clip waiting to go.
Phoenix and Renner possess less screen time in general (Renner actually has much less than expected), but the reliable actors still do a hell of a lot. Phoenix is slightly unnatural, swaying from charming to domineering without transition, but in select moments he pauses to remind us why he is one of the finest screen thespians of the present day. After The Master and Her brought him back into favorable regard (I mean his professional work, not his behavioral antics), it’s safe to say Phoenix can do little to no wrong, and though his relationship with Cotillard’s Ewa is a brutal one, it’s another check on Phoenix’s extensive range. Renner exists almost as Ewa’s dreams personified. Besides actually being a magician, Emile’s intentions seem almost too good to be true, and with Ewa learning that the land of opportunity is already a colossal fabrication, her trust in Emile understandably wavers. Constantly decked out in vaudvillian makeup, Emile is like a masqueraded angel, a romantic and a dreamer who extends his hand to Ewa only to have it severed by Bruno. There’s a dynamic between Bruno and Emile that I wish had more exploration, as opposed to being whisked away by inference. The actions still evoke affectingly, but it’s a shame to see acting pairs shortchanged, even if slightly.
James Gray’s thematically chilling The Immigrant is an emotionally subdued melodrama tailored for a past audience; it’s just short of entirely terrific but requires patience, attention, and a reliance on cinematic foundations. It’s cooked up melodrama that can become ravenous in places when it commentates on the promises of freedom, love, and recovery. Simultaneously an unsettling story with love (note: not a love story) betrayed by the limits and concept of goodness; a morality examination that is evocatively cold, but strangely beautiful in an absorbing and painful way. Lulled by Christopher Spelman’s score, The Immigrant is either hopefully desperate, or desperately hopeful. As signified by Gray’s final shot, it might – ironically enough – be both, thought passion and tragedy, with survival appointed to the forefront.
Review by Mike Murphy