PLEASE DO NOT read if you don’t want the plot and storyline given away……
James Gray’s in competition period film follows the the travails of a young Polish woman played Marion Cotillard as she tries to get a foothold in the New World.
The emotional and moral price of the immigrant experience, circa 1921 in New York, is expressed in quietly wrenching terms in The Immigrant, James Gray’s sensitively observed melodrama about a Polish woman forced to run a gauntlet of degrading experiences to secure a foothold in the New World. Enhanced by a splendidly atmospheric recreation of the Lower East Side, the intimately focused work is anchored by another superior performance by Marion Cotillard, which, one can be sure, The Weinstein Company will spotlight to build the often downbeat, slightly off-kilter film into a draw in specialized release.
Alternately called “Low Life” and “The Nightingale” before receiving its final title, The Immigrant structurally resembles the sorts of highly dramatic women’s stories that were old Hollywood staples for actresses such as Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, in which female characters had to endure endless trials and tribulations, usually at the hands of unreliable men, before emerging stronger if not unscathed.
Gray is hardly afraid of intense emotions — he repeatedly employs operatic excerpts on the soundtrack and creates a moving scene in which Enrico Caruso performs for detainees on Ellis Island. But the film, which he co-wrote with the late Richard Menello, so vividly evokes an historical context that the desperation of Cotillard’s initially timid but persevering character, fresh Polish arrival Ewa Cybulski, acquires far more realistic and mordant colorings than most such characters did in the past.
Things go badly for the Cybulski sisters from the moment they set foot on Ellis Island. In scenes actually shot at the historic gateway to the United States, Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is instantly quarantined with a lung disease, while Ewa is told she’ll be sent right back to Europe due to reports that she “may be a woman of bad morals” due to her behavior on the crossing.
However, there’s a strange fellow hovering around who notices her and bribes an official to admit her into his custody. Obviously an operator, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) is also charming and persuasive in both English and Yiddish, not that Ewa has much choice but place herself in his hands. He takes her straight to the heart of his largely Jewish neighborhood, which has been beautifully rendered by production designer Happy Massee and bathed in a sepia glow by cinematographer Darius Khondji in a way that unavoidably summons memories of The Godfather—Part II, the relevant parts of which took place very nearby.
The tightly-wound Bruno overseas a prohibition-era bar and theater, the elegant trappings of which merely put a pretty cover on its peep-show nature and the availability of the girls after hours. Loose woman or not, Ewa is so traumatized that she recoils even at Bruno’s attempt to hug her, so he goes easy on her by breaking her in with a petrified teenager whose wealthy father fears is “not manly.”
Reliant upon Bruno for lodgings and money, Ewa tries to escape to an uncle and aunt in Brooklyn but is instead turned in by the uncle due to her shameful reputation, which gets her sent back to Ellis Island in time for the Caruso concert, a wonderful sequence in which opera singer Joseph Calleja magnificently impersonates the legendary performer. Also on the bill is Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), who does a great levitation act. Turns out Orlando used to play at Bruno’s club but was bounced out, so once Bruno saves Ewa from deportation again, this time upon her agreement to work as a prostitute on a 50/50 basis, the rival men are pitted against one another over a woman other men have all the time.
The dramatic dynamics become a bit dodgy in the second hour. Banished from the club, Bruno pimps his girls from under a bridge in Central Park while the two men go at each other and Ewa can only bide her time until her sister is released. As energetically realized by Phoenix in significant change of pace from his last film, The Master, Bruno is a vivid character, increasingly desperate financially and over his unrequited feelings for Ewa, who bluntly says she doesn’t like him.
Although Renner makes him initially enaging, Orlando is clearly a man with a past who is trying to make a change. Unfortunately, his personal demons are not sufficiently identified or explored, so that he comes off as too simplistic a nice guy who wants to save Ewa from Bruno and herself but may or may not have what it takes. Orlando’s lack of a fuller dimension somewhat imbalances the film as the drama deepens.
In the end, the one character with real depth is Ewa, a woman who was traumatized in Poland and is once again in New York. Hollow-cheeked and ashen, she is daily debased — “You helped your sister today!,” Bruno cheerfully says — and hates herself. In the most moving scene, Ewa goes to confession and admits to her “many, many sins” and to her suspicion that she may go to hell as a result (insidiously, Bruno is able to listen in on her anguished admissions).
Speaking in a completely convincing Polish accent with a slight hint of German due to her character’s origins in Silesia and at times speaking in Polish, Cotillard makes the movie, creating a haunted figure who may one day be able to go on to a new phase but is certainly permanently marked by her multiple harrowing ordeals. With her eyes and body, Cotillard indelibly registers the enormous price Ewa pays for a shot at a new life.
Moments after leaving an early morning press screening of James Gray’s “The Immigrant” in the final stretches of the Cannes Film Festival, I immediately encountered two extreme perspectives on the movie. Conversing with a pair of knowledgable cinephiles, one extolled the classical virtues of director James Grey’s swooning tale, which finds Marion Cotillard playing an Italian immigrant pulled into prostitution by scheming showman Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). Set in 1921, the elegant period piece reminded this man of no less than Elia Kazan’s grimy New York dramas. But that was only one reaction. Another viewer called it a cheap imitation that benefited from Cotillard’s investment in her tragic role, but suffered equally from a melodramatic Phoenix performance and an equally preachy score.
In my estimation, they’re both right.
Gray’s fifth directorial effort is a conflicting experience admirable and powerfully executed in parts, cold and meandering in others. The great cinematographer Darius Khondji (whose recent credits include “Amour” and “To Rome With Love”) captures the era in magnificent golden hues and deep shadows that are particularly effective at making Ellis Island come alive early in the movie. When Cotillard’s doe-eyed character Ewa gets pulled from her ailing sister as they prepare to disembark in Poland, she arrives in New York flustered and directionless, a state of mind at odds with the building’s stately interiors. The contrast between her continually dire state and the lavish beauty of New York at the turn of the twentieth century provides the movie with a running visual motif that sustains it throughout, but also has a tendency to feel dry.
At first Ewa’s plight is fairly straightforward. Rescued from deportation by Bruno at the last minute, she’s quickly subjected to his money-grubbing routine, dressed up in an exaggerated cabaret outfit to resemble the Statue of Liberty and eventually pimping her out at a ramshackle vaudeville theater in New York’s seedy Lower East Side. But when Ewa manages to escape and find her relatives in Brooklyn, “The Immigrant” complicates its story by putting her struggle in an increasingly greater context. Cotillard makes the best out of an underwritten character, her sullen demeanor occasionally charged by outbursts of frustration when she discovers that she’s truly alone — and desperate enough to remain susceptible to several unspoken agendas.
Though Ewa herself is a woefully underwritten character, Gray’s screenplay (co-written by Ric Menello) does a fine job of exploring the fantasy involved in seeking easy catharsis from lower class struggles. Frustrated by her enslavement by Bruno, Ewa gravitates toward his seemingly kindhearted cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician whose attraction to Ewa leads him to promise her salvation. But when the tension between these two men finally comes to a head, it arrives with an unsatisfying thud, as does a lot of the plot’s ongoing developments. Per usual, Gray has more success with the cultivation of atmosphere than narrative, which is an issue in a movie that has so much of it.
Both in terms of production volume and themes, “The Immigrant” falls more in line with Gray’s moody police drama “We Own the Night” than his tender, low key romance “Two Lovers,” but it combines both the strengths and weakness of those two features. While rendered on a grand scale, “The Immigrant” contains a fairly intimate story the anguished victims of America’s melting pot. It translates the iconography of Ellis Island and the New York City memorialized in literature from the time with impressive élan, but often suffers for the same reason — by imitating the model for emotionally wrenching storytelling, “The Immigrant” often feels overwrought and veers into histrionics, even though it works well when avoiding those extremes.
As more audience members filed out of the screening room at Cannes and gathered to unload their thoughts, reactions were all over the place. Gray, whose small but ambitious oeuvre has never gained much traction in his native country but enjoyed steady interest in France, might be one of the most curious American filmmakers whose work displays a sincere approach to popular genre tropes. Due to his cautious application of tone and refined formalism, Gray has few contemporaries but plenty of precedents; like Paul Thomas Anderson, he reaches so hard for a level of greatness that a different era of moviemaking that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the task with him.
To wit: The final shot of “The Immigrant” reveals a pair of frames-within-a-frame that epitomizes the director’s outstanding appreciation for mise-en-scene. In this case, the image conveys the dual nature of his character’s lives, particular the oppression and resistance that define their every move. But it also encapsulates the nature of the movie itself as it begins a life no doubt defined by a wide variety of reactions, all of which confirm Gray’s ability to make work that’s worthy of discussion.
Time Out says
Fri May 24
American filmmaker James Gray (‘The Yards’, ‘We Own The Night’) turns in his first period piece with this well-meaning but unpersuasive and fatally lifeless melodrama about the immigrant experience in 1920s New York. It begins with the arrival of two young Polish sisters, Ewa and Magda, on the city’s Ellis Island in 1921. Magda is quickly whipped off to the infirmary with suspected tuberculosis, leaving Ewa, played with a frustrating passivity by Marion Cotillard, to live in the shadow of her absence for the rest of the film.
Struggling to reconcile her Catholic faith with the horrors of being a penniless, vulnerable immigrant alone in New York City, Ewa enters purgatory when a shady character, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), helps her off Ellis Island by slipping the guards some cash. He eases her into a life of sleazy theatre and even sleazier prostitution, giving her accommodation in return. The early scenes are curious enough as we wonder about the true nature of Bruno’s interest in Ewa. He’s not obviously evil and even shows some compassion at points. He’s just sympathetic enough for us to wonder what circumstances have led him to be in this position himself.
The appearance of Bruno’s cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician who Ewa encounters during a second stay at Ellis Island, only complicates Ewa’s situation as she finds herself caught between two men with conflicting but overwhelming interests in her. It’s a perverse love rivalry that in the end comes across as awkward and distracting.
Gray’s desire to tell this story as carefully as possibly, leaning on a quiet classical approach and avoiding overplaying the claustrophobia and grubbiness of Ewa’s situation, is admirable enough. But the result is airless and equivocal. Gray is too reliant on plot turns that are hard to believe, and on observing Cotillard’s face and hoping her eyes and expressions will tell the story. That said, Cotillard is a sad, wounded but firm presence. It’s Phoenix who is all at sea, shuffling and shouting and appearing lost as the film enters a later, more shambolic stretch. ‘The Immigrant’ promises rich territory to explore, but in the execution it’s overly stately, dreary and unconvincing