Monday, May 19, 2014

The Immigrant

Grade: 96/A

In the opening of The Immigrant, the extraordinary new film by James Gray, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda are among the huddled masses on Ellis Island. “We’re almost there,” Ewa says, her face full of hope, but “almost there” isn’t “there,” and Ewa soon finds herself caught in an unsympathetic system and pushed to the point of desperation and beyond. Yet The Immigrant is not a miserablist dirge, but rather a melodrama in the classic sense, closer to Wyler, Sirk or Rossellini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bermgan in the 1950s than to Inarritu or von Trier. It’s a film that depends on the utter conviction of all the players, a straightforward emotionalist approach that will alienate those unable to leave irony at the door. It’s their loss.

Ewa and Magda are stopped on Ellis Island, with Magda detained for tuberculosis and Ewa facing deportation for an incident on the boat. To her fortune, she speaks English very well, and she happens upon Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who offers to take her in if she’ll earn her keep. Bruno runs a burlesque troupe that he pimps out to customers. Most of his girls look upon him as a guardian, a savior; Ewa, as his newest addition, loathes him. Yet Bruno loves the woman he exploits, and their relationship is complicated by the arrival of Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a charming magician with a difficult relationship with his kin.

From the first scene, Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji build an atmosphere of melancholy, of hope drowned by the fog of reality. There’s an inviting soft focus to the proceedings that’s counteracted by the emphasis on greys and faded blacks. Ewa and Magda have arrived to a land that’s promised them much, but the land of opportunity proves less welcoming than they’d hoped; after Magda is taken from Ewa in a gorgeous reverse dolly, Ewa’s taken to processing, where her questions about what she can do for Magda are dismissed with a curt, “We’re not dealing with your sister right now, ma’am. Understood?” Within a few minutes, Ewa is threatened with deportation for being a “woman of low morals,” to which the same man gives a disingenuous “I’m sorry.” The message is clear: it’s a land of limited opportunity for newcomers, especially for women.

These early moments set Ewa up as a figure of desperation, but to Cotillard’s credit (as well as the credit of Gray and co-screenwriter Ric Menello), the film never devolves into an orgy of suffering. Ewa is desperate, and out of her element, but the film does not make her powerless. Instead, Cotillard mixes in a healthy dose of pragmatism, a sense that she’ll do whatever she has to do to survive and save her sister; discomfort around others, as in a scene in a bathhouse where she’s the only woman who hasn’t disrobed (in a moment of intelligent, non-sexual nudity) or other moments where she tries to fade in the background away from others; and a sense of shame in what she’s doing that bleeds over into both religious guilt and unearned superiority over a number of other women who, like her, are just doing what they need to do to survive.

We’re firmly in Ewa’s corner, and yet the film constantly redefines how we’re supposed to view her relationship with Bruno. As played by Phoenix, the single most interesting actor working today, Bruno is a kindly scoundrel, a man whose charity and professed love for the women he protects doesn’t keep him from using them. Yet when Ewa first rejects his (non-sexual) touch, he reacts not with fury, but with pained outrage, with indignation that someone he’s taken in could be ungrateful. For all of the things he’s capable of, his desire to help seems genuine.

Bruno is desperate in his own way: desperate for Ewa to love him. There’s something in her determination, in her desire for happiness for herself and her sister on her own terms that’s deeply attractive, even as that would push her away from him. We learn more about him: his loss of a past love after she learned about his illegitimate vocation; his need for control over his life, and his temper whenever his control (over his girls, or over an audience) is undermined.

The Immigrant is a rare film that makes two diametrically opposed people’s actions understandable at any given point, and that shifts our sympathies depending on the given scene. Ewa can be either prideful to a fault or filled with shame and fear over her work as a prostitute. Bruno can be a manipulative creep or a guardian, a man who’s furious when he sees his girls humiliated. We see the best and the worst of them when Ewa goes to church and Bruno follows. Framed as a religious figure, Ewa is deeply penitent for what she’s done while showing no warmth for the only man who’s helped her. Bruno, meanwhile, has pushed his obsession and possessiveness of Ewa to the brink by following her to church, even listening in on her confession, but the look of remorse on his face when he hears her speak of him is unmistakable.

That religious element begins as a minor factor and grows more pronounced as the film develops. Ewa’s faith grows from simple and hopeful to complex and filled with self-loathing. Bruno’s own Jewish identity separates him from her Catholic faith, but his need for atonement is just as great as her guilt, and what begins as a downplayed fact (“I speak Yiddish”) becomes a greater element as we learn that he, too, is an outsider in America, despite being the first generation of his family born there.

Gray films this with classical touch: the exploitation and prostitution is clear without being explicit. The passage of time is signified with the wilting of a rose. A spectacular dissolve brings Bruno into frame just as a bond is forged between Ewa and Emil. His use of shadows and light recalls Kazan and Coppola (the latter especially in his use of amber gas lights). The emphasis on faces in close-up is essential. In the first scene that brings all three principals together, Renner’s Emil has brought Ewa on stage for a magic trick, a simple mind-reading moment, showing nothing but the best intentions. Dressed as Lady Liberty, Ewa, asked what she wants, replies in close-up: “I want to be happy.” She is our Maria Falconetti, our Joan of Arc, but soon, after the crowd turns on her, calling her a whore, a close-up on Bruno is just as telling as to the nature of their relationship: he’s just as hurt as she is.

Emil is a fascinating figure in his own right here, more outwardly charming than Bruno, someone who seems to be leaning in and listening to Ewa’s every word. At first glance, he’s the most understanding person in the film, someone who recognizes Ewa humanity and Bruno’s love for her while still seeing why she might resent him and how he’s using her. When he rebukes Bruno, it’s hard not to be with him. Still, none of these characters are quite as they first appear, and as first hinted in a story Bruno tells Ewa, Emil is no saint either.

The Immigrant is one of the most moving and telling films about America that I’ve ever seen. It takes a small story of love and exploitation and turns it into a tale of a nation’s capability for cruelty and kindness. It makes the American Dream look just as nebulous as it is, and still strangely within reach. It makes a seemingly powerless woman one of the most dignified and empowered female characters in recent memory, and an initially reprehensible man a tragic, pitiable, and strangely loveable figure. We learn the depths of Bruno’s self-loathing and his capacity for goodness. Ewa says at one point, halfway through the film: “I am not nothing,” a thesis for the film that’s repeated, and altered, right up to the final scene. By that time, and by the the film’s breathtaking closing shot, The Immigrant reveals itself to be a film of almost unending humanity. However flawed these characters are, and however polarized their respective futures may be, their lives mattered.

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