Opening in 1921 with a gloomily grandiloquent shot of the Statue of Liberty, a boat full of greenhorns disembarking on the adjacent Ellis Island, you’d be forgiven for thinking the emphatically titled The Immigrant might be a sweeping historical epic about America birthing a new world and a new set of possibilities. But strip away all the period furniture, and the long anticipated latest from James Gray (still awaiting release in the US and UK but just now out on Blu-ray in France, where each of the director’s films is feted) is very much allied with his earlier police procedurals The Yards and We Own the Night, and the soured romantic drama Two Lovers.
A claustrophobic chamber piece centred on a mesmerising, toxically co-dependant relationship, all the imagined possibilities of the Promised Land are immediately reduced to nothing the moment Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) steps off the boat. When her sister’s suspicious cough immediately alerts the attention of immigration officials, Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is quarantined for lung disease, while Ewa is detained – pending likely deportation – for supposed ‘immoral behaviour’ during the trip over to New York.
Ewa’s American dream quickly turns into a nightmare which only gets worse when she’s bailed out by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) a member of the travellers’ aid society who uses his position to recruit women of low morals for a burlesque that’s struggling to make ends meet amidst the declining profits of prohibition, the Great War that still rages, and people packing out picture houses instead of booby shows. A father and lover to all under his roof, Bruno is a Fagin for runaway women, a silver tongued charmer with an ungovernable temper and erratic in every way. From Commodus in Gladiator to Freddie Quell in The Master and himself in I’m Still Here, no one throws a petulant temper tantrum like Phoenix, who as Bruno, is in turn, agitatedly terrifying, ingratiatingly childlike and pathetically wheedling whenever he persists his girls pimp themselves out to make more money.
Moreover, Phoenix has always been so good at essaying the slipperiness of people constantly having to justify themselves. Inviting Ewa into his highly dysfunctional family, Bruno feeds her and clothes her only so that his lies have more leverage and he’s more able to rationalise a sense of ownership over a woman he’s in love with but can’t have. With Gatsby’s gift for self-deception, Bruno convinces Ewa (or rather wears her down) into hooking for her sister’s well being, and that by offering her the quickest way to help pay for Magda’s recovery, he’s actually doing her a favour.
It’s here that the film trembles on the edge of grim poverty porn, but never descends quite so low, even as it’s tracing the correlating downward spirals of the two main characters. Drawing the line between being deprived and being depraved is never easy, but the tedium of Ewa’s servitude is shot through with just the right degree of despair to make us dwell on one of the film’s more subtle underpinnings. As Ewa continues to walk that line it begins to blur; a tightrope balancing act which considers the dangerous triangulations, compromises and somersaults people put themselves through to determine their place in a new world, as well as their attempts to understand it.
Gray presents the experience of a shifting social hierarchy within the growing immigrant populous in detached yet incisive psychological terms. Bruno is a naturalised citizen but other than an official bit of documentation, still just as foreign as Ewa and his cousin Emil (a charismatic Jeremy Renner in his best performance since The Hurt Locker). Like Ewa they are all searching for a new beginning, something to which they can anchor themselves that is neither of the land from which they came, nor of that in which they now find themselves. This geographical displacement is at the heart of Bruno’s contradictory nature. Aristocratic yet ignoble, full of self-piety yet mentally extremely fragile, it’s a combination that finds violent expression in Ewa’s unrequited feelings and outright rejection of him. Such a response plays like a role reversal of The Master, with Phoenix in the role of Lancaster Dodd and Ewa just as resistant as Freddie Quell to being seduced. In this time of devastation and displacement, the tussle between Bruno and Ewa is a search for answers in the other person, both beguiled in some form but neither wanting to give in to the other.
Once Emil steals Ewa away from Bruno (just as he did his previous girlfriend), there’s a very strong echo of Gray’s own Two Lovers, with Phoenix now ironically walking in the shoes of Vinessa Shaw’s character in that film, the woman whose way of loving was so suffocating he jilted her for Gwyneth Paltrow. Far more selfish and self-hating than anyone in that triangle, Bruno is a controlling, snivelling slime ball, whose manipulations show us not only how terrible it is to control a human being, but that freedom and being human are vital and interlinked. And yet, the tenacity of Bruno’s failure to connect with Ewa is such that you care deeply for him. With each subsequent disappointment Ewa soon learns to look on all the hope she brought with her to America as a toxin in life, and Bruno is afflicted by the same malady. A bad man good enough to want to be better when he meets Ewa, the idea of hoping for better things with a woman who despises him after he whores her out, quickly develops into an unbearable form of mental torture.
The real intelligence of Cotillard and Phoenix’s performances is in how Bruno and Ewa are both sufferers, acutely aware of their own suffering. This is never verbally identified and Gray’s script never makes the mistake of overplaying anything. Neither has a freak out or a meltdown scene, at least until the very end where so much emotion has accumulated, it can no longer be repressed. In such a stark contrast to the rest of the film, it gives Phoenix’s final confessional a clattering power. Bruno and Ewa are both survivors, and part of survival is the ability to lock off that really raw part of yourself. After the first john is forced upon Ewa, Cotillard painfully and precisely articulates the silent fracturing of personality that often occurs when you’ve perpetrated a crime or been the victim of one. Splitting in two and seeming to stand alongside one another in each scene after that, we see the woman who walks and talks and the woman who really feels, haunted by an irreversible set of compromises.
Darius Khondji’s dim watt, Dickensian lighting is beautifully blustery on an autumnal film stock, a sense in every frame of death encroaching upon the birth of a multicultural nation, whose collective dreams decay as soon as soon as its new inhabitants set foot on American soil. The film may open on one of the monuments of our own magnificence, but The Immigrant is most definitely a film about human maleficence.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 13, 2014