To America and Beyond
James Gray’s The Immigrant opens with a shot of the Statue of Liberty then transitions to a ferry en route to Ellis Island, where a procession of European emigrants await decision on whether they will be allowed into the U.S.. The sky is foggy, the water is cold. It is January 21, 1921. One could not ask for a more specific moment in history, a more recognizable snapshot of Americana. And yet, The Immigrant doesn’t feel contained within its historical context. In its thematic grandeur and vividly drawn characters, the film attains a timeless quality that reminded me of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a book-play-film that, despite being set at a particular point in French history, evokes larger, more universal ideas that transcend the era’s sociopolitical milieu. Likewise, despite situating its story during the early 20th century wave of immigration into America, Gray’s film expands into an eloquent fable exploring a plethora of ageless topics – male vulnerability, redemption, faith, and, of course, the American Dream – treating them not as casual motifs but as points of passion. Following a Polish immigrant who is forced into prostitution as a means to buy her sister passage into America, The Immigrant begins modestly but transforms into an epic of the emotions – at its best, the film so forcefully works through its feelings and ideas that the experience approaches the sublime.
Key to the The Immigrant‘s sense of grandeur is the film’s taste for the theatrical. This is surprising, given that the movie commits on so many levels to creating a gritty, down-to-earth vision of 20th century Manhattan. The camera hovers at street level, observing the squalor of urban life with an eye for lurid details that brings to mind the muckraking perspective of historical exposés like 12 Years a Slave. There is violence and lust, portrayed with a disturbing frankness. The film’s sets are convincingly understated, the costumes a believable reproduction of the era’s wardrobe. The women wear shawls and plain dresses – prostitutes don more florid attire – while the men sport overcoats and fedoras. Everything is dark and drab, offering us no relief from the depressing circumstances of the times.
And yet, the film’s proceedings have an air of performance. Although The Immigrant‘s world is credibly rendered, it is presented in such a way that invites us to see it less as an immersive environment than as a backdrop to the story. The movie’s locations recur and are often repeatedly shot from the same vantage point (most of the film takes place on the same street), evoking the limited sets in a stage play. Across multiple scenes, we are emphatically placed in the position of audience members in the movie world, a fact that draws attention to our role as spectators not so much to distance us from the film as to encourage a sense of wonderment. In one scene, we watch spellbound as a magician performs his act onstage; in another, set during a burlesque show, the camera observes as if it were among the misogynistic crowd catcalling from the dark. Meanwhile, the soundtrack surges with the sounds of opera and Catholic hymns, and the orchestral score by Christopher Spelman has the elegiac pull of ocean water receding from high tide. The music, deeply affecting, grants The Immigrant an emotional volume the film wouldn’t have otherwise. Over everything the film floats a fog of sepia, visual coloring that evokes Neil Burger’s The Illusionist – it adds the touch of romantic suggestion that the film’s ugly realism threatens to stifle.
But the heart of the movie’s power lies in its impassioned performances, which unite realism and grandeur into three vividly drawn characters. These characters are richly detailed – we believe them to be unique individuals rather than simply archetypes – but they also evoke the heroes and monsters of stories past. Together, they elevate the film’s history-based narrative to the level of myth without sacrificing psychological complexity. As Ewa, the Polish immigrant who is driven into prostitution, Marion Cotillard is stunning. She makes us frightened for this woman. Her haggard eyes speak of an exhaustion beyond words, her fragile frame barely holding her limbs in place, let alone offering any semblance of physical strength. But Ewa is strong, out of love for her sister and faith in God – she is a devout Catholic – and Cotillard conveys this through subtle shifts in her performance. A steely edge to her voice, a pursing of the lips, a quietness of demeanor that indicates resignation founded not in cowardice but courage. Ewa is an emblem of purity – she embodies the virgin, tainted by a corrupted world – and yet is a character so real that your heart breaks for her. As played by Cotillard, she is the film’s masterstroke.
As Hugo, the man who manipulates Ewa into the prostitution business, Joaquin Phoenix is scary in his low-key menace that erupts into volcanic fits of poisonous rage. Phoenix, a terrific dramatic actor, is pure Brando in the way his lower jaw juts out and his words slip out gutturally through barely open lips. More importantly, he taps the kind of tortured masculinity that afflicted Brando’s Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, bringing a fearsome vulnerability to the character’s screen presence. Once again, the evocation of the theatrical is essential. Without playing down the character’s nuances, Phoenix concocts a larger-than-life aura that is as arresting as it is devastating. In an equally theatrical performance, Jeremy Renner plays Orlando the magician, the third corner in a doomed love triangle that develops between him, Ewa, and Hugo. A knight to Hugo’s dragon, Renner fills his role with a dashing mix of energy and pluck. His chivalry clashes with Hugo’s vitriol, and Ewa sits precariously between them – the ensuing melodrama takes on a scale worthy of Shakespeare.
Some critics are already hailing The Immigrant a masterpiece, and they may be right. It has the emotional scope and towering performances to warrant that label. In a film that seems intent on crafting an unglamorous, uncompromising vision of America, the introduction of such impassioned drama offers an exhilarating contrast. But neither does the movie forego granting its characters depth. Far from being mere echoes of humanity’s great mythic icons, the figures of Ewa, Hugo, and Orlando take on the weight of real, complex human beings with idiosyncratic fears and dreams. In this case, the film’s dark and gritty world becomes the perfect environment for these characters to develop as convincing individuals, because the real world is dark and gritty. How rare it is, for a film to be deeply human on both an archetypal and psychological level. It’s the kind of phenomenon that demands to be seen.
Now for a few additional thoughts on the The Immigrant that will hopefully enhance your appreciation of the film. SPOILERS AHEAD – don’t read this until you’ve seen the movie.
The film’s opening shot is of the Statue of Liberty. The camera pulls out slightly, and we see the blurred figure of a man gazing upon the statue. The next shot establishes the arrival of a boat to Ellis Island, and from then on out the film doggedly follows Ewa’s story. The shot is never contextualized, never explained. Who is this man, and why is he the first person the film depicts? Before I continue, consider how the movie is titled “The Immigrant”. We assume the title refers to Ewa, but could it apply to another character? I argue that it could. From the fedora and overcoat, we can safely assume that the man is Hugo. Orlando dresses differently, and it wouldn’t make sense for the film to open with a minor character, especially since the man is granted elevated importance by the mere fact that he is the only one visible in the frame.
At multiple points throughout the film, Hugo tells us that he is an immigrant, albeit one who has long settled into American life. He is Italian and came off the boat just as Ewa did. For most of the movie, Ewa is the clear protagonist, and we sympathize strongly with her predicament. It isn’t until the film’s ending when Hugo is able to redeem himself that our sympathies expand to encompass him. The movie’s conclusion is ultimately as important for Hugo as it is for Ewa. For her, it’s the end of a journey toward freeing her sister as well as toward grace i.e. finding the strength to forgive herself and those who’ve wronged her. For Hugo, it’s the close of a redemption narrative, one that doesn’t crystallize for us until the movie’s concluding moments. In the film’s final shot, the two of them are both shown exiting the scene. Their motions are presented side by side, illustrating the inherent similarity between the two. She is “the immigrant.” So is he. On top of all this, that the film likens Ewa to Hugo in their shared identity as immigrants serves as a reminder that America itself is a nation of immigrants, defined by its multiethnic heritage.
What then of the fact that Hugo was looking at the Statue of Liberty, and that the figure of Lady liberty reappears in the form of Ewa’s stage costume? As the film unfolds, I believe Lady Liberty comes to embody the multiple facades that exist in the movie, the ways in which characters’ perceptions fail to line up with the reality of the situation. In Ewa’s case, the lecherous men in the audience put her humanity second to her role as a sexual object. They reduce her to a tease, a plaything. The ugly lens of misogynistic male lust becomes reflected in the figure of Lady Liberty, the costume that masks Ewa’s true, human self. Hugo, too, harbors an inaccurate view of Ewa. By having Hugo gaze upon the statue at the start of the film and Ewa wear the statue’s image, The Immigrant illustrates the source of Hugo’s obsession. He idolizes her to the point where his “love” turns hideously selfish – he keeps the money from Ewa to keep her from leaving him. He misconstrues selfish love for true love. His desire to satisfy his own romantic urges hides what selfless love would have revealed: that she exists apart from him as a person with her own needs and desires. He turns her into a romantic object, not rectifying his faulty perspective until the film’s conclusion.
And of course, there’s Lady Liberty’s most basic connection to the idea of America as a land of opportunity, the biggest lie of all. Ewa’s story amounts to a merciless deconstruction of the American Dream narrative along with countless books and films over the past century. But whereas many of those works end on a pessimistic note, The Immigrant finds hope in its concluding moments. The film’s gorgeous final shot is mediated by surfaces – we see Ewa on a boat through a window, and Hugo’s exit is reflected in a mirror. We view neither character directly, a rare perspective in a movie that, as mentioned earlier in the review, often places us in the position of diegetic spectators gazing directly upon their subjects. Furthermore, the boat is far away and the lighting too poor for the mirror to project a clear reflection – both characters are reduced to hazy figures before the image fades to black. In a film where the seeming certainty of the gaze translates into a multitude of faulty perspectives, this moment of visual murkiness suggests an alternative, more useful perspective: that the truth is murky and a future of prosperity uncertain, both for the characters and the nation as a whole. But hope is there, and in a world as dark and twisted as ours, it’s what we need to keep us going.