James Gray's latest tale of melancholic woe and spirits in emotional turmoil takes us back to when America was the land of opportunity for the tired, poor, huddled masses. The director's fifth feature is once again centered in New York, where past entries like "Little Odessa" and "Two Lovers" took place, but "The Immigrant" takes us back ninety years, putting a classical spin on his typical tale.
Though it's lensed with a soft focus emphasis that lends the film a dreamlike patina, "The Immigrant" doesn't shy away from scratching below the scabbed surface of the American dream, even in the first scene. The Cybalska sisters, Ewa and Magda, are among the many crowded in line at Ellis Island in 1921, waiting to be welcomed into America (through the rigorous immigration process that shows that getting into the States was just as difficult then as it is now). The elder Ewa (Marion Cotillard, whose haunting beauty and old-school look made her the perfect casting) is a former Polish nurse who tries to advise her sickly younger sister to look well, but unfortunately, Magda is consumptive and kept in isolation from the other immigrants. Ewa herself is corralled when she is suspected of being "a woman of low morals," but before she can be deported, she is "rescued" by a man named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, also perfectly era-appropriate), who trawls the immigration station in hopes of picking up potential new additions to his troupe.
For you see, Weiss runs a burlesque show made almost entirely of young foreign ladies who escaped the ravages of the Great War to seek their fortunes here. But he takes a special kindle to Ewa, who nevertheless finds herself disliking her new livelihood and employer. Despite his rather sad-sack pursuit of Ewa's affections, Bruno still pimps her out to rich patrons. It may seem very von Trier-esque, but indeed this was not uncommon in the Big Apple back then. Yet Ewa refuses to be downtrodden, even though she has convinced herself that she is a condemned woman (referenced in a crucial scene in a Catholic confessional). She even flees from Bruno's employ at one point, only to end up back where she started in Ellis Island . . . and who is waiting to bail her out by Weiss again?
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for Ewa, in the form of a dashing Houdini-esque magician named Orlando. Played with relaxed charm and verve by Jeremy Renner, Orlando makes a perfect foil for Phoenix's Bruno. Orlando would traditionally be the hero of this story who gets the girl in the end, but James Gray is not interested in telling a traditional tale, even if he has taken many tropes from older works. Orlando's presence presents its own problems for Ewa, and the brewing conflict among the three central characters affects her most of all.
And Gray certainly lucked out in casting Cotillard; the actress knows how to convey a soliloquy's worth of emotion with a single glance, and Cotillard's mournful, ethereal presence is used in full force here. Her dialogue is minimal, mainly reactionary save for her confessional, and yet she says more in this performance to express her situation than Cate Blanchett did in "Blue Jasmine" could with all of her broad rhapsodizing (no disrespect meant to Cate). Cotillard has played in this era before, and the fact that she has the throwback beauty that would've made her a star even in the silent days makes her presence in this film all the more soulful. (Also, full props on the French actress mastering the Polish accent, even whilst speaking the language!)
But Cotillard doesn't have to do the heavy lifting alone. Joaquin Phoenix, who's worked with Gray three times before this, continues to show why he may be the premier actor of his generation. Bruno Weiss seems to be a self-loathing man who just can't bring himself to play the hero in the traditional sense, resorting only to the shady and seedy in order to get ahead in life. Phoenix does a fine job of showing that there is a great depth to Bruno, and we sympathize with the schmuck; he works well on the stage, but when the curtains are drawn, he's at sea. Jeremy Renner, who came very close to playing the role that Phoenix made instantly iconic in "The Master", has a fantastic presence and works very well against both Joaquin and Marion. One does hope that Gray works with him in the future, hopefully in a leading part to take full advantage of his talent.
"The Immigrant" may rest mostly on its trinity of actors' shoulders, but it is a rich experience thanks to Gray's operatic direction, which feels like an homage to the days of both Chaplin and Coppola. I do find it to be an almost incomplete film, as I feel its ending felt more like a respite than a true completion. Perhaps it's due to the fact that I feel Gray could do so much more in this era, and tell more of this woman's story. But as it stands, I find "The Immigrant" to be a fine film with a great deal to say, and it acts as a beautiful showcase for Cotillard.