By Christine Jin
To say that James Gray’s body of work is in essence a capsule of the American immigrant experience wouldn’t be an overstatement. In all of his five feature films, including his latest The Immigrant, the characters share similar family histories as turn-of-the-century immigrants or their descendants, with similar feelings of displacement. Set in the very era of steamship-aided mass-migration, the entirety of Gray’s fifth movie might well serve as a two-hour tracing of those characters’ roots and a cogent prologue to the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
The opening shot of The Immigrant belongs to Lady Liberty, as seen from a distance, who is presented like one of those old, faded photographs. It’s a perfectly apt way to begin a drama about individuals desperately searching for what the monumental statue represents. If there is one specific vision embedded in early 20th-century newcomers’ collective memory, it would be this goddess figure with an arm raised high, standing tall and proud, yet still appearing a bit out of reach. That widely-circulated image of passengers on the ship looking awestruck at the sight of the statue has invariably featured in stories about the passage to America. Or, as much as it symbolises freedom and future, the sculptured lady would have been just a reassuring sign of the end of a week-long ordeal at sea, in crammed, squalid, and disease-spreading quarters.
The camera then pulls back ever so gingerly, and segues into the stunning interior of the Ellis Island immigration station. The next scene packs another miscellany of familiar images: a measured tracking shot of immigrants in queue while the camera scans their washed-out faces and scruffy clothes, a tilt shot that unfolds the sheer scale of the main hall, alternating with an overhead shot of a crowd thronging the station. Amid the crowd, many of whom are refugees from war-torn lands, are Ewa, portrayed by the magnificent Marion Cotillard, and her sister Magda. Even before they properly savor the joys of landing, harsh realities immediately hit the sisters when Magda, a tuberculosis patient, is escorted away and Ewa gets rejected for being a woman of no morals, and no money. But there seems to be hope after all, even if it turns out to be a deceptive kind. When Bruno, a pimp and night show-runner, comes along, Ewa accepts his saving hand.
The Immigrant is a visually sophisticated yet simply told story, and at first it seems wholly devoted to Ewa’s journey. She has two goals to meet: getting her sister out of Ellis Island and then finally settling in. Though we only witness her struggles and hardships on land, those of hers at sea cast a long shadow over the beginnings of her penniless life in New York. A devout Catholic, she’s very much a moral person, yet constantly falls prey to judgments and chastisement from males — her uncle, show audiences, and even an immigration official — not surprisingly on religious grounds. But there’s a flip side to this religiously based mistreatment of the woman — Bruno forces Ewa to work for him and wear a Lady Liberty robe, while in his imagination she becomes nothing but a pure saint, a fragile bird that needs his cage-protection. In virtually every scene, Cotillard’s divine face adorns the screen in soft focus, recalling the similarly characterised women in D.W. Griffith’s and Carl Th. Dreyer’s century-old silent treasures. The character of Ewa seems an amalgam of, say, that poor girl Lucy in Broken Blossoms (1919), poor and degraded Anna in Way Down East (1920), and poor, persecuted but noble Joan of Arc in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1920).
But like her predecessors, Ewa isn’t merely confined to dualistic virgin/whore characterisation; she asserts her dignity and autonomy in her own calm, unyielding, yet roundabout manner. At one point, she declares, “I am not nothing,” after she’s betrayed by her uncle and ends up back at Ellis Island. While it seems her nobility and almost maternal attachment to her sister are about to elevate her to quasi-goddess status, she brings herself to compromise her purity to survive — and ultimately to live happily. Since we closely follow what Ewa undergoes throughout, it feels indescribably rewarding when the narrative arrives at a satisfactory closure.
Hers is not the only journey the movie intends to tell, however. Bruno, at once exploitative and in love with Ewa, is also an immigrant. Occasionally, Gray places Ewa and Bruno in bisected compositions. In each of those compositions, Ewa looks helpless, intoxicated, or regains a sense of purpose on one side of the frame, while on the opposite side, Bruno negotiates with customers to make money off her, or starts walking the path of redemption. Gray, with DP Darius Khondji, planned shots and scenes in ways that communicate the characters’ emotions and relationships efficiently and elegantly. The final shot seems to do Joaquin Phoenix’s character justice because, though it cannot be known for sure what the future holds in store for them, audiences intuit that Bruno, like Ewa, will see a glimmer of hope as he takes a step forward for a better life.
Gray’s collaboration with Khondji culminated in the best visual achievement in film this year. Drawing inspiration from artworks produced in the same period as this movie’s setting, the pair infused the entire picture in alternately ravishing and somber shades of gold and brown. The tenements and streets might well have taken their cue from the well-known photograph of 1910 Mulberry Street, and the burlesque scenes evoke Everett Shinn’s Spanish Music Hall. Along with the frequent close-ups of Cotillard’s beautifully expressive face, the consciously handpicked colors and textures heighten the pathos and drama of the film’s prevailing mood and emotionally intense scenes.
One might be tempted to call some heavy-handed plot contrivances — especially those involving Jeremy Renner’s Emil — the film’s flaws, but they seldom undermine its structural simplicity, which suits this type of archetypal story. It’s mostly about a woman’s plight, and also partly about a man’s redemption, but anyone who once set out in search for the new land could relate to these onscreen surrogates. If Ewa is a successful embodiment of America’s immigrant experience, that’s because Cotillard turns in yet another sublime performance. Her acting resume consists largely of tragic female roles (and she won an Oscar for playing one), including her next undertaking in a Michael Fassbender-led adaptation of Macbeth (2015). In killing herself Lady Macbeth may be the ultimate tragic woman, but here in 1920s America, Ewa lives on.
Christine Jin is a contributing editor for the magazine.