Great filmmaking generally falls into two categories. The first could be considered the conspicuous type – think the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, the opening montage of Persona or the first shot of Touch of Evil – examples of filmmaking that we can’t help but gape at, appreciative of their clear genius and extreme manipulation of the filmic form. Orson Welles himself however hints at the second type when he says that the best shot, or edit, is the one that we don’t notice at all – so measured, technically precise but organically developing out of the material rather than authorial imposition, that it becomes a form of invisible filmmaking; at the service of the film’s story, its themes and its characters. The Immigrant is a great film in that vein (though its near transcendent final shot is one to marvel at) – a film of such power and ingenuity, but with an artistry that only reveals itself upon close scrutiny.
James Gray is associated – albeit tenuously, through time and place rather than any artistic sensibility – to the young American auteurs following the Sundance/Miramax explosion at the tail end of the 80s and through the early 90s – sometimes known as the ‘video store’ generation. Alongside Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, PT Anderson and others, Gray’s career is older than we first think, 1 and in the two decades since he has not only been the least prolific of these directors (The Immigrant is just his fifth feature) but the most unheralded. 2 The reasons for this suggest something like my introduction – I’m loathe to endorse the style versus substance dichotomy of absolutes, but the majority of the American directors of his generation can, I think, be called stylists to an extent, with an extreme aesthetic that does eschew a lot of American filmmaking, taking cues from Jean-Luc Godard and American mavericks like Robert Altman, of overlapping stories, non-linear narratives as well as new approaches to violence and sex on screen. Gray’s films get left behind in this discussion – they don’t reject the classical aesthetic, they embody the best of its potential. In an age where films are stylistic and cynical, Gray’s sincerity, measured direction and respect toward characters is not outdated, but to some, extremely refreshing.
In the film, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is an immigrant from post-war Europe, travelling with her sister Magda. Magda suffers from tuberculosis, so is quarantined on Ellis Island in its infirmary, and threatened with deportation. Likewise Ewa is at question because of an unseen event on the ship and is labelled as a woman of ‘low morals’. At risk of being sent back to her homeland, she learns one of her first lessons about the Land of Opportunity – anything can be bought, including her and Magda’s freedom, but at the price of her own dignity and crucially, self-worth. Spotted by low-level charlatan and pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), he buys her freedom with the promise of employment, with the requisite contacts to be able to free her sister down the road. With no other choice, Ewa accepts his offer as the two form a tumultuous partnership with mild interference from Bruno’s cousin Emil, Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner).
The film’s attention to period detail, highlighted by cinematographer Darius Khondji’s glorious sepia-toned photography,3 is such that we don’t need obvious long diversions or montages of scene-setting to set up the world of the film and its thematic armature. The film tries to recreate so many Classical films – Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, springs to mind alongside plenty of other self-sacrificing ‘Fallen Woman’ tales. There’s an instant lived-in feel that’s instantly expansive – not coincidentally, it’s the first film ever shot on the actual Ellis Island where immigrants were processed – large establishing shots of ghettoised precincts aren’t thrown at us to force us into the period. And ultimately, this is the film that something like Scorsese’s Gangs of New York wanted to be – a historical narrative that serves as microcosm for the development of America into its modern day state. Yet unlike Gangs, Gray’s film understands that scale does not equal scope. 4
The mastery of The Immigrant is its balance of the intimate focus on the individuals and the film’s grander narrative ambitions, nothing less than being the story of America in the 20th century – of puritans, of whores, and of the puritans who visit whores. The contradictory morals of individuals illuminate broader historical trends on a micro level, of each character’s conflicting desires and motivations. Even the side characters – those who express faux outrage and declare Ewa a woman of ‘low morals’ are the same morally bankrupt ones who Bruno can bribe, or of the faceless men that hurl abuse at Ewa on stage, in the film’s most devastating sequence. We understand the weaknesses and flaws of individuals that seem broadly sketched when they form into masses.
Ewa’s struggles are so painfully realised that it forces us to reassess historical narratives. The film questions how the history books can lump individuals into vague stories of nebulous masses – the backdrop of the film is the faceless influx of post-war immigrants, and the film posits Ewa’s story as representative of millions, but uniquely her own. These aren’t one-dimensional characters following a set historical narrative – in the first shot, we feel the film could follow any one of the immigrants that come off the boat into their own rich story – but it’s the only way we can conceive of them. That’s how ideas of nation-building come about, and its something Gray is interested in. Understandably, the film has roots in Gray’s own ancestry; such insight and experience could only be auto-biographical.The lasting power of The Immigrant is how nuanced, powerful and authentically human the story of Ewa is, as contextualised into the wider story of American history, where her most traumatic experiences, her faith and her relationships that encompass her world, aren’t even footnotes. The title is perfect – “The Immigrant” – the singular but anonymous name has a thematic resonance that you rarely see in modern cinema film titles.
So the film has intentions that are impressive and ambitious, but not unique. As I’ve hinted at, the macro-level themes and scope work because the micro-level is so perfect and authentic, which is where most period films generally fail – generally unconvincing Hollywood romances that even when there is a Sad Ending, they ring false in shallow characterisation, meaning that they don’t work as cyphers for broader ideas or narratives, and by mistaking set, costumes and period detail for an aesthetic or visual storytelling. The Immigrant, however, has perhaps the two richest characterisations in cinemas this year; characters who we continue to learn more about over the runtime of the film – Joaquin Phoenix’s brooding intensity and neuroticism is deployed well, but his casting goes further – in the best Phoenix performances, we see a great actor playing a mediocre actor; that is to say, a convincing performance of a character maintaining a particular veneer or mask, and these attributes continually and incrementally betray his true character and insecurities. The dynamic works perfectly as this is a film clearly – though subtly – is viewed through the prism of Ewa’s experience. Bruno is contradictory, insecure, and unpredictable; we feel Ewa’s increasing comfort around him – the only person in the entire country she recognises – and her uneasiness at her dependence upon him. Phoenix is terrific (I struggle to think of another contemporary actor who could deliver his final scene), but the film is unquestionably Cotillard’s. No director has asked more from close-ups on one actor’s face since Dreyer with Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the film is carried on her back – it’s an incredible performance bursting of pride, hurt, self-sacrifice and self-loathing, and her presence anchors some of the film’s most devastating moments – the sheer look on her face when she tells Bruno “I want more money”, with all the implications that brings, is shattering.5
The dynamic between the two characters, as I’ve mentioned, is extremely well-developed, and this is just one aspect heightened by the way Gray uses the art of perspective in the film – in one early scene, Ewa eyes up a hat with money on the table, and quickly grabs a note.6 Once she retrieves it, the camera cuts to a POV shot on Phoenix’s face, turned slightly and it is impossible to know whether or not he saw her steal it (until the scene comes up later in the film) – barely registering this change in perspective, we still feel Ewa’s paranoia and fear toward him. Likewise, with her first client – we cut to black before any contact is made, a deployment of directorial restraint that withholds from easy audience manipulation for sympathy or even cringe value; rather Gray sees the thematic and character strength of hiding such a scene, echoing Cotillard’s own repression as coping mechanism, as well as highlighting history and society’s own way of turning a blind eye to such encounters.7
There’s still so much to unpack from this film – I haven’t mentioned Renner’s role yet, and it is an odd one to come to terms with. He exists primarily as a plot motivator, but also in the way in which he is distinguished from Bruno, where the promises he gives Ewa puts her (and by extension, us) in a strange love triangle. Looking like a low-rent Clark Gable with his moustache, he treats Ewa better than Bruno and yet we have many reasons to distrust him; he appears to be a way out, yet his profession as a magician is not an insignificant detail – the promise and opportunity he represents are literally illusory. And in this way, he represents the hope of Ewa more generally. One reading I’m surprised other critics haven’t suggested is what the film intends by suggesting Ewa needs to go to California. The film turns one manifestation of the American Dream – Ellis Island as gateway to the Land of Opportunity – into another. “Go West”, and all the promises it entails which have historically been two stories; of Frontier exploration for the fortune promised by virgin territory, and then a later one – Hollywood itself. In all but an end title card, the film seems to spell out what a hypothetical The Immigrant II would be – Ewa in a Days of the Locust style drama convinced by a hundred other Bruno-type agents and producers into trying to make it big into moving pictures, in the burgeoning silent film era that was a haven for European expats like Garbo and Dietrich. But that’s the rare quality in a film like The Immigrant – so much is unsaid. I’ll be shocked if there’s a better film this year.
The Immigrant is being released by Roadshow next month in limited release.
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