IMDB summary: In 1921, unfortunate circumstances drive newly arrived immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) into a life of prostitution, and a complex, volatile relationship with two men – her conflicted pimp and his romantic cousin.
As I work my way through my 1992 watchlist for an upcoming Top Ten By Year column entry, it seemed a doable side project to finally watch the increasingly lauded work of classicist James Gray. I still have to see We Own the Night (which I’ll be watching tonight) and Two Lovers, but with Little Odessa, The Yards and The Immigrant, the latter two make Gray well on his way to being one of my favorite working filmmakers.
Some stories are familiar for a reason. James Gray posits this with regularity. Unfashionably leaning on lush (but not, critically, romanticized or glossy) classicism that seems to either envelop the viewer or leave them cold (depending on your predilections), Gray focuses on the precise juxtaposition of operatic scope against intimate human struggles (or more precisely, the latter cradling within the former), largely of the criminal and familial. His films are about what goes on in the confined living spaces of down-and-out working class New York. Again, I can only speak to the three Gray films I’ve seen but there are so many similarities between them in both structure and focus. All three begin with an arrival and end with a departure. The protagonist makes it through, but everyone else is fair game. Joaquin Phoenix’s simmering penchant for producing hidden layers of agonized and doomed empathy are capitalized, casting him in roles that position him as a dubious obstacle, revealed as someone riddled with complexity on top of complexity. Accidental deaths abound. Familial connections increase the tautness. Critically, each James Gray film is near-obsessed with the act of choice.
The Immigrant is a constant balancing act. Shots often walk right up to the tip of overtness. The final image, for example, is on the fence of that line; obvious but packing a majestic wallop of visually splintered destinies — parting, but forever connected. Darius Khondji reconstructs the rich haze of period films, but steps back from gloss. The feeling that someone can slip through the cracks and fog is easily within reach, the lower class a world all its own. The aforementioned familiarity plumbs the depths of clarity and oft depicted material, but is also used to narratively veer ever-so-left or right. Characters we think we’ve got pegged (‘hey I recognize that type; the wayward prostitute, the pimp with a temper, the knight in shining armor’), we don’t, but not in acts of narrative subversion. The familiarity of ‘types’ merely allows Gray to pull back the layers, reveal them as human beings stuck in a system. Against each other, yet mutually dependent in their low placement on the totem pole.
Money makes the world go round and money haunts The Immigrant. It enables corruption and loopholes. One can get around the system by knowing the right people. People can exploit the system in order to exploit others. We see the hierarchy and importance of power and respect taking shape, and everyone finding their place within it. Connections are made out of desperation. Any choice you make is a chance taken, and people stay in bad situations largely because they don’t want to risk tripping into something even worse. A fellow prostitute warns Ewa of this while talking about Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). For what it’s worth (at once nothing and everything), once they are under his wing Bruno treats the women quite well, all things considered. They’re like a makeshift family. The point the fellow prostitute makes to Ewa is that trust equals risk, and it’s always a risk. Nothing is what it seems. You have no idea who people really are, especially being a woman in predatory 1920s New York looking to make a place for herself.
Confined spaces are used to create insular environments in a way that oddly recalls the “Other World” from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. For Ewa, and us, it feels like nothing exists outside her immediate purview. Attempts to get out lead you back to where you just came from, only a little more hopeless. She is falsely informed that her aunt and uncle do not want her. She is bucked at every turn; only Bruno comes to her aid. Her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) might as well be in another dimension. Ewa is onto this, but awareness does not equal much in mileage.
The living spaces hum with the imprint of personal remembrance. The Immigrant feels big, but look again. It all takes place in the spaces. Even when Bruno and the women are turned out, they set up shop in a park tunnel. We so urgently feel the fact of having nowhere else to go. When she ‘escapes’ from Bruno, it’s like she’s emerged from the rabbit hole. She’s out, but what now? Experiencing Ewa’s obstructed view of New York makes us feel the direness of choice, whether an illusion or lack thereof. It all comes back to choice.
There is the urge to trust. Jeremy Renner’s Magician with the Masked Charm Emil is seemingly an out, or at the very least a hunky ally. He’s more stable than Bruno and reeks of agreeable entreaties. Bruno’s act on the other hand is transparent from the get-go. And look at the situation he’s got her in. There have been lies and deception at every turn. Yet there’s unmistakable loyalty, and hey, at least he turns his boiling anger inward. But Gray sets up expectation only to bring in complications, not of plot but of character. Emil’s got a great act going for him but there’s a loose thread in all the sheen and eyeliner. He uses Ewa not once, but twice, to make a point, putting her in the middle of incredibly fraught situations. The Immigrant is half-marketed (if you can even say half, considering how disgracefully Harvey Weinstein punted this into a handful of theaters) as a love triangle, but that’s not really the case at all. Yearnings are used as a backdrop. Ewa, in the midst of her conflicts, has her eyes solely on reclaiming her sister. She’s far more worried about the Catholic guilt of her supposed sins, and whether attempted dignity or survival is a justified stance, then these two men.
The Immigrant is an intimate spectacle, and the three powerhouse performances all serve the aching grandness of the story; Cotillard with her steely resolve and the plight of woman shone through her impossibly expressive face, Phoenix with his agonizing journey of inner conflict and full-Brando moments, and Renner with his ambiguous reappearing act. James Gray is so finely tuned into his actors, into the immediate environment of the characters, and with the strength and weakness of familial bonds amidst dire circumstances. It’s classical without being pastiche, grim without being miserablist (and furthermore with concrete glimmers of hope). In my capsule review of The Yards, I stated that everything carries weight, and that the story, and the people within it, matter. It’s a rare gift of a quality, and it’s looking more and more like a sense of intimate magnitude is James Gray’s greatest strength in a sea of them.