A great classicist, James Gray has often been called painterly, operatic, novelistic. It’s as if we have forgotten what good cinema looks like, searching other media for a comparison, assuming the heft and heart of art and literature is somehow outside the movies’ grasp. Gray’s The Immigrant, which premiered last year at Cannes and is just now hitting theaters, is a romantic tale that hides its monumental scale and subject in plain sight, a subtle, soulful masterpiece that cuts to the very heart of the American experience. Wrapping big themes in an intimate embrace, the film feels both epic and personal. It not only reminds us of what film used to be, but also of what it could be once again. A story of survival and redemption for the characters, the movie surely accomplishes the same for a very specific, straightforward kind of filmmaking that I haven’t seen in a very long time.
A mournful, mesmerizing meditation on the immigrant experience, the movie opens on a slow zoom of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in foggy mist, its back turned to the camera. From that first moment, The Immigrant unfolds in the foggy, misty gap between the promise the statue embodies and the harsh realities newcomers encounter when that promise turns its back on them. Later in the film, Lady Liberty will make a second appearance, this time as the main character’s cabaret costume, a sad parody of the ideals represented by the statue. The woman is asked why she came to America. “I want to be happy,” she mouths gently, her voice breaking with infinite sorrow. In another show, a magician levitates before the Ellis Island detainees, who are for the most part awaiting deportation to their home lands, assuring them that anything is possible if they believe—“The American Dream is waiting for you,” he says at the end of the act. How appropriate that the pep talk comes in the middle of a con act.
For the few who make it to the mainland, the American Dream is replaced by poverty and prostitution. Dressed in exotic, eroticized national costumes, they put on a show in the low-rent basement burlesque joints of the Lower East Side—not far from the seedy Five Points neighborhood Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was set in a few decades earlier—turning tricks on the side. When they fall on hard(er) times, they put on boas and headbands and ply their trade in Central Park, parading around as the fallen daughters of the city’s richest men. Pimp, whore, and john alike are in on the joke. The American Dream of upward mobility becomes a salable sex fantasy, the cornerstones of a national myth eroded by ambivalence and irony.
Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) have escaped war and crossed the Atlantic only to be turned away at the front stoop of their destination. Not much has changed since Chaplin’s own The Immigrant, made almost a century ago, in which hopeful arrivals to the land of liberty were tagged and tied together like cattle. Gray’s naturalization officers in 1921, one year after the United States ratified women’s suffrage, apparently didn’t take kindly to a woman entering the country unescorted, especially one of low morals according to reports from the ship. Along with Magda, who is showing signs of tuberculosis, Ewa is promptly branded an undesirable.
Enter the sharply dressed and well-connected immigration aid and part-time pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who says he can talk to some people to get her to the mainland right away and set her up with a place to stay until she can return for her sister. In a lesser movie, Ewa would be naïve and Bruno would be charming. He would deceive her into prostitution, and eventually she would understand that he would never help her sister, concluding that the America Dream is nothing more than a lie, a pimp’s come-on. But in Gray’s film, Ewa is not naïve and Bruno is not charming. She knows exactly what she’s getting into, and sleeps with a rosary at the top of her bed but a knife under her pillow just in case that doesn’t work. She suffers, but she also steals and schemes. Bruno is awkward and weak-willed. He regrets what he does for a living, but not enough to stop doing it; he genuinely cares about Ewa, but not enough to stop exploiting her.
Phoenix, who has starred in all but one of Gray’s films to date, gives one of his best performances here, creating an anguished portrait of a man that you can neither fully despise nor pity. The actor develops Bruno into a tragic character of tremendous proportions although he is neither the protagonist of the movie nor the main driving force behind its plot.
At first unwelcome, Ewa strides into the New World with an explorer’s spirit, turning a place where she’s not wanted into one that she can call home. In her face, as the camera locks in on Cotillard’s eyes, capturing a mysterious, haunted quality buried in her gaze, The Immigrant finds the whole gamut of human emotion. At once dignified, determined, and vulnerable, the actress brings a refined, radiant intensity to the role of a woman whose job it is to give her body to men but never actually gives anything of herself away. Gray’s long, uninterrupted closeups brim with emotional power and intimacy as he chronicles the heartbreaks and small triumphs of three of the most fully developed characters in contemporary American cinema.
As the third corner of a would-be love triangle, an immensely charming, uncharacteristically lighthearted Jeremy Renner plays Emil, an alcoholic, impulsive illusionist who calls himself Orlando the Magician and wants to take Ewa away from New York and make an honest woman out of her, as it were. The tragedy is that what Emil is offering is no more than one step removed from her current occupation; as a magician’s assistant, Ewa would only be selling a different kind of illusion. She doesn’t love either man, and neither one loves her, exactly. It’s the idea she presents and the opportunity for redemption that they are really after, pursuing it as hungrily as the immigrants coming off the boat want their American Dream.
The Immigrant is, however, not all broken promises and crushing reversals. In a vital scene that takes place in the confessional of a Catholic church, Ewa seems convinced of her damnation, but however low her behavior might have sunk, her moral center remains pure, and there is hope for her. The message translates to the other characters as well, and the film is, in the end, triumphantly, defiantly hopeful.
Gray’s art lies not only in his uncanny ability to convey the unspoken, or in investing it with utmost importance, but in making it observable and unambiguous—something felt rather than suggested. The film’s script, by Gray and the late Richard Menello, is dense with profoundly layered correlations between illusion and reality, the artifice of magic and the struggle beneath the surface. But The Immigrant is not about the deception and delusion of the American Dream, but about two souls pushing past doubt and abuse towards a deeper understanding of their own selves and the world around them. Crude manipulation sits side by side with exquisite subtlety; tawdriness is all mixed up with beauty, meanness with tenderness.
On the surface, the film is a standard, lurid fable of feminine self-sacrifice, wronged innocence, irrational cruelty, and wild coincidence set in a landscape of betrayal, brutality, and corruption. But the director works his way under this surface, under the skin and into the soul of his characters, who are as changeable and unpredictable as their surroundings. He builds his movie from the characters outward, circling in ever increasing circumference to encompass larger themes, forces, and universal factors of the human experience at the same time he deepens our understanding of Ewa, Bruno, and Emil. The Immigrant derives its considerable thematic heft directly from their actions and emotions, and from the relationships the movie establishes and maintains with them. Gray’s film has many impeccable moments and many powerful ones, none more so than its wordless last image, following an almost feral scene of despair and self-loathing, in which the director achieves a lyrical, lingering visual balance between Ewa and Bruno that they could never achieve with each other.
All glowing gold and gray, filled with dark colors and chiaroscuro displays of light and shadow, The Immigrant offers a vivid tableau of early twenties New York made of bustling streets, dingy alleyways, cramped tenements with peeling wallpaper, and the chilly and chilling processing center and holding quarters of Ellis Island, hallow halls of dreams where so many fates where decided. This world seems so lived-in and felt-through, every space shaped by comings and goings and accumulated experience, it registers not as a set, but a real place with smells and temperatures that you can almost feel.
At times the movie looks like a lost artefact of the vanished era it so brilliantly depicts, daguerreotypes come to painfully sober and stubborn life and allowed to move, feel, and think once more. Gray’s meticulously researched sets are sometimes framed as old photographs, shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji in a soft-focused, gorgeously grainy palette. The images look like Gordon Willis crossed with late nineteenth century painting, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon in America meets silent film. Its ambitions are spelled out in Chris Spelman’s soulful score, which has the gall and grace to weave Wagner and Puccini in with tasteful original themes almost imperceptively. In its structure, The Immigrant resembles the highly dramatic women’s stories that Joan Crawford characters suffered through, usually at the hands of unreliable men, only to emerge stronger if not unscathed. But perhaps the film’s closest cinematic kin are Roberto Rossellini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bergman. In its stripped-down realism yet breathtaking beauty and its blistering fixation on the female character’s grappling with life and death, The Immigrant is Gray’s Voyage to Italy.
Rich, raw, and beautifully rendered—although it sometimes dips into melodrama—the movie has a depth, delicacy, and purity of feeling that make other films seem small by comparison. It unfolds at a pace that will challenge today’s attention-deficit audiences, but movies like it, timeless movies that need time to seep into your system and reward viewer involvement were never made for short attention spans.