The bronze color filter of The Immigrant stands apart from the romanticized sepias that typically shade period films. Its yellow-brown hue is grimy and dirty, as if shot through industrial pollution instead of an ancient lens. The skies around Ellis Island and in an ethnic neighborhood are obscured by heavy sunlight dissipated among clouds, leaving America unexplored and full of promise but also dangerous, a thick fog that threatens to lure ships and ferries to dash themselves upon the rocks before they can set down on the Land of the Free.
The faint glimmer of hope in this atmosphere belongs to Ewa (Marion Cotillard), standing in line at Ellis Island for processing. “We’re almost there!” she beams to sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), and as the frame sharpens into deep focus, so too does reality emerge to sully her dream. Magda’s cough gives away her tuberculosis, prompting a forced six-month quarantine. Officials inform the siblings of this in detached, unsympathetic tones, the same ones used to then deny Ewa’s entry based on rumors of her being “a woman of low morals.” Just as all hope seems lost, a man, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), approaches her and offers to get her off the island, and to give her shelter and work.
Only a fool would not know what this entails, but to Ewa’s credit, she is no simpleton. Her eyes reflect the camera that records her: steely and studious, moving only to slowly take in someone’s motion or to case surroundings. The toll of surviving a war-torn Europe has prepared Ewa to recognize the way of the world, but that does not leave her any more capable to resist it when Bruno takes advantage of her situation, of having nowhere to go and needing money to buy her sister out of confinement, to put her into his cabaret act, then to make her one of his prostitutes.
Cotillard has a delicate balancing act with Ewa. The speed with which the immigrant finds her hopes of a safer life than the one she had Poland torn apart threatens to turn her into a martyr; indeed, a shot of her in a confession booth late in the film isolates her beatified face against a black background and recalls Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Instead, the actress taps into Ewa’s more complex mindset, one driven by familial duty but also a rapidly metastasizing acclamation to the ways of capitalism. Cotillard plays this the way Marlene Dietrich might have, with a dying fragment of vulnerability wrapped in a carapace of stubborn principle. Devastated by what she does to survive, Ewa nonetheless negotiates with Bruno for a bigger cut, and she will not take several opportunities for escape if it means leaving without Magda.
Ewa’s nerve both frustrates and fascinates Bruno, who clearly wants her for himself but also profits off of her. When she resists her first john, Bruno kneels down beside her and tells her that he does not want her to do this either, but that he knows she will. “For you, your sister’s well-being is more important than your own,” he says with a trace of awe, uncomprehending that someone could care for another person this much. Bruno could be seen as an unrepressed predecessor for Phoenix’s neurotic protagonist in Two Lovers, and a coincidental response to his work in Her as a man who prefers programmed love. Bruno pulls every string to keep Ewa in his vicinity, but he fails to see that his efforts have made him the McCabe to her Mrs. Miller, nothing more than a business associate forced upon her and the last person with whom she wants to share space, much less a life. Phoenix brings his usual capacity for self-immolating passion, and that fire blinds Bruno to the hatred in Ewa’s eyes.
Ewa’s cold, all-seeing gaze creates a foundation of unsentimental clear-headedness matched by James Gray’s direction. The filmmaker has long favored long shots that soak up an environment, communicating every minuscule detail while also underscoring the limits of its characters’ perspective. The Immigrant takes that trait to its furthest point: most of New York City remains buried behind that aforementioned fog, a visible “Here There Be Dragons” blank spot on a map.
The thoroughly defined spaces are the dismal living conditions of ethnic slums, the Venus fly trap that is the cabaret, and the inhospitable corridors and holding rooms of Ellis Island, which looks more like Alcatraz than a symbolic beacon of a better life. The camerawork and art direction is not ornate, but its omissions make that which does receive a careful eye all the more revealing.
Gray’s maximal-minimal aesthetic matches the essentialist tone of his script, co-written with the late Ric Menello. It would be wrong to call the film’s dialogue or scenarios minimalistic, but each is pared down to what it needs to get across a character’s self-estimation. The plot does not simply heap abuses onto Ewa so much as it scrutinizes the dramatic irony that suffocates her. “[Magda’s] gonna get the best medical care available,” Bruno assures Ewa on Ellis Island, shortly before pressing her into service to pay the exorbitant cost of that care. Bruno’s cabaret act, playing on the exotic origins of his immigrant dancers, mocks the notion of a melting pot and makes money for the man off the pasts they came to America to leave.
Often, Gray only needs a shot to make his point, as in a tilt down from the top of a lavish Catholic church in the neighborhood that takes in the cathedral’s opulence and provides a tacit but unmistakable contrast of the living conditions of the Pole congregation who gave of their thin pay so that such a lavish, old world institution could be erected.
It is in these details that the film nominally fits with other immigrant stories but begins to set itself apart from any clear antecedents. Darius Khondji’s cinematography and the general time setting will undoubtedly win the film comparisons to The Godfather, Part II, but of the many differences between the two, the most crucial is the sense of scale. Coppola’s film charts a perverted Alger Hiss that takes place against a huge backdrop, but The Immigrant foregrounds the illusion of the American Dream and the way it maintains that mirage to subjugate the lower classes. The Corleones can only advance because of their ties to the old country; Ewa can never break out of poverty and exploitation because she can never shed those connections.
In fact, if The Immigrant resembles any one movie in particular, it is not The Godfather nor Once Upon a Time in America but Showgirls: both are movies about women who “sooner or later…have to sell it,” and both find those women further stretched by an anti-love triangle with two men who are equally possessive and selfish, in this case Bruno and his magician cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), whose white knight routine is tarnished by its blatant superficiality.
But where Gray’s films have always been informed by their rich cinephilic connections, from the post-Tarantino placement of Jewish gangster debut Little Odessa to Two Lovers’ debt to Visconti, The Immigrant stands firmly apart from other markers. It represents the fullest demonstration to date of the director’s capacity for classical, Fordian composition while remaining attuned to the subtleties and naturalism of contemporary acting. The master shots may say everything about the characters’ inescapable socioeconomic status, but the actors must say as much about their characters with as little time.
Renner’s boyish grins say everything about his flippant, adventure-seeking attitude and how Ewa is just another thrill. Phoenix, meanwhile, taps into his usual reservoirs of rage while stifling himself just enough that he tends to raise his voice instead of yelling, and to let the suggestion of his total power over his small sphere of influence substitute for any beatings. The camera never intrudes on these decisions, getting just close enough to make sure they’re visible or jumping back to let those choices reach maximum velocity before hitting the lens.
It all hangs on Cotillard, though. Ewa is a part that could lapse so easily into cliché, but the actress demonstrates that a woman of “low morals” need not be either an abused naïf or a world-weary cynic but can have the traits of both. There is no self-consciousness in her performance, whether biting into a banana without peeling it because Ewa has never seen one before or admitting equal hatred for Bruno and herself. Her defining moment comes when Ewa revisits her aunt and asks a penitent “Is it a sin to try to survive?” Then she modifies the question, asking “Is it a sin to want to survive after doing so many bad things?” The former is self-martyrdom, the latter a defiant refusal of same. It is no coincidence that Gray’s maturation as a filmmaker correlates with his increased facility with writing women, and as Ewa casually tears apart reductive readings with such thoughts, it hardly comes as a surprise that this is the director’s best film yet. Surely, that places it among the upper-echelon of contemporary American film.