'The Immigrant' and Lady Liberty

The Immigrant
(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. James Gray, Writ. James Gray, Rick Menello
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
 Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard star in The Immigrant, an eOne Films release

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
-“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus.

The Immigrant is in the midst of a theatrical run that opened in town of the Fourth of July. Independence Day seems like an ironically fitting day to amplify the resonance of this beautiful yet bleak picture from writer/director James Gray. The film begins and ends on Ellis Island in 1921, and this haunting tragedy gives a startling urgent tale of the fallacy of the American dream.

The Statue of Liberty creeps out of the mist when The Immigrant opens with Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arriving at Ellis Island with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), with whom she left Poland. Ewa urges her sister to stifle her coughs and appear composed, but the port authorities detain Magda due to poor health. Ewa keeps her head down and passes through the line. The immigration officials deem her a liability, though, since her aunt and uncle, her supposed hosts for her arrival in the new country, fail to show up and claim her. Minutes away from deportation, Ewa, a survivor, impresses a seemingly earnest gentleman named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) with her startling looks and fluent English. Bruno seems to be the only many eager to fulfill Lady Liberty’s promise to welcome the tired, poor, and huddled masses in search of freedom.

Bruno, though, simply harbors the wretched upon his own teeming shore. The Immigrant thrusts the respectably composed Ewa into the role of a lowlife as Bruno proposes that she earn her keep by taking a job in his bawdy house. Bruno, unsurprisingly, coaxes her into prostitution.

The Immigrant unfolds like a fable as Ewa’s hope spirals into ill-fated destiny. The film is saturated in cultural mythology as Ewa slaves in pursuit of the American Dream and the palpable urgency of her tale suggests that this is a story that had been told before. She suffers quietly and passively as she clings to an unwavering belief that everything will be all right in the end, but Gray slowly leads The Immigrant through an ominous crescendo of foreboding atmosphere that suggests that Ewa’s story cannot end well. Her belief in salvation and her hope for being united with Magda lies in a cruel bind that smothers her with affectionate exploitation from Bruno’s side and, from the other, the romantic promise of escape from Bruno’s rival Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner). Bruno, jealous of Orlando’s interest in Ewa, falls into a volatile tailspin the more Orlando promises aid. A step into towards freedom is thus a step into danger no matter the direction Ewa pursues.

Perhaps the cruelest irony of Ewa’s odyssey is the role she plays in Bruno’s seedy burlesque. Ewa, cast in the part of Lady Liberty, must strut herself before an audience of vulgar onlookers as she shirks timidly about the stage draped in a green robe and holding a torch for the viewing pleasure of American men. This wannabe American must take the symbol of hope and prosperity in the new world and turn it into a titillating cabaret. The American Dream is nothing more than a dirty, sordid rag.

The travesty of making it in America is apparent in the chorus of Americans Ewa encounters during her tours through the gutter and boarding houses of Manhattan. Only charlatans, thieves, whores, gamblers, and well-to-do men leeching off the misery of others populate the America Ewa sees. There is no prosperity here, only hardship.

Ewa’s journey is one of heartache as embodied in the exceptionally strong performance by Marion Cotillard. Cotillard, who seems to have a handle on both speaking Polish and speaking English with a Polish accent, easily gives the standout performance of the year so far in her subtly devastating act of resigned suffering and dutiful survivalism. Ewa is a tragic mix of shame, pride, hope, and disappointment as Cotillard gives the best magic act of all in the film—even more impressive than Orlando’s levitation—by embodying the masses of people who have been crushed by the American Dream yet retain hope because there is no returning home.

There’s little hope for Ewa save further exploitation and The Immigrant realizes Ewa’s predicament most powerfully when she goes to her first confession at church since arriving in America. The immigrant wraps herself in a shawl, making Cotillard resemble the likes of cinematic heroines such as Anna Magnani or Sofia Loren, and pleads before God for forgiveness not only for herself, but also for the pimp she insists is a good man. Cotillard has never conveyed such a range of emotion with her big beautiful eyes as she does in this confession.

Phoenix is equally impressive in one of his more low-key performances. His brooding, charismatic Bruno is truly a detestable figure, but he’s equally pitiable for how pathetically he thrives in the gutter. (A fact that Gray shows with some spot-on location use for Bruno’s cabaret-style pimping.) He’s a strong foil for Cotillard’s heartrending Ewa. Ditto Jeremy Renner’s uncomfortably smooth Orlando, who resembles an even bigger snake eager to swallow Ewa as he prowls in the alleys and shadows looking to seduce Lady Liberty.

The Immigrant easily marks a career high for Gray as he boldly tackles the perversion of the American Dream in the imbalanced relationships presented in this tale. This American tragedy feels especially relevant not only for the land of Lady Liberty, but for all for the west that shrouds itself in a veneer of openness and acceptance, yet acts as a breeding ground for alienation and xenophobia. Ewa, as the proverbial other, is helplessly homeless the moment she docks at Ellis Island with hopes for the future. Escaping a war ravaged past, yet exploited and displaced in her landed destination, Ewa embodies the generations of anonymous Americans forced to live as exiles within the land that offers her shelter.

The film marks Gray’s most ambitious and most richly realized film, for The Immigrant seems to have no equal among contemporary American films, except perhaps for Scorsese's sprawling Gangs of New York. The soberly paced Immigrant displays top-notch production work across the board beginning with the trio of strong performances. The costumes by Patricia Norris (12 Years a Slave) are impeccable period outfits that dress Ewa in a range of fetching flapper garb (for which Cotillard seems perfectly tailored after Midnight in Paris) and working class Sunday best. The cinematography by Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) is luminous, as The Immigrant drips with a glowing sheen and fogginess. It looks and feels like a classic. The film features a remarkable palette of light and shadows to situate Ewa’s odyssey in some sepia tinged in-between place amid a dream and a nightmare.

The outstanding visual work of The Immigrant leaves a lasting impressive with the film’s masterful final shot that splits the fates of Ewa and Bruno in two different yet equally dire frames. Gray and Khondji divide the stars using a window and a mirror to see them leave the same origin as they go in different directions but are ultimately heading nowhere. This complicated composition, bathed in dank dusty light, leaves an endless horizon for future heartbreak. It’s the work of a master.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Immigrant screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until July 10 and at The Mayfair from July 18 - 22.

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