Director James Gray continues to hearken back to a bygone era of movie-making. While Hollywood marches onward in a digital era, Gray continues to make films as if his peers are Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Previous Gray films The Yards and Two Lovers may take place in our contemporary world, but evoke the aesthetic that makes them feel suspended, from another era.
Gray’s latest, The Immigrant, might be the most blatant example of this evocation of the past. The opening minutes are reminiscent of Vito Corleone’s backstory in The Godfather: Part II. However, while Vito’s story functions as an ascension to power, a sort of perverse fulfilment of the American Dream, in the Immigrant, Ewa Cybulska’s (Marion Cotillard) story is the decline and collapse of the illusion of a better life as she falls into regressive cycles of exploitation and abuse.
Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes a dominating presence in her life. When he rescues her from being deported, her wary gratitude eventually allows Bruno to press her deeper and use her love of her sickly sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to lead her into a life of prostitution. Gray’s story exists in the space of moral ambiguity, one in which while many terrible things happen, it’s hard to condemn the characters for their actions because their is a logic and reasoning behind them.
Ewa’s character balances being a victim while still having a drive and agency. It’s clear that she’s being abused and manipulated, but while she does fall into prostitution, she’s constantly able to keep Bruno at bay from his advances and even stands up for herself in moments when it would probably be safer to back down. The film allows her to both be a victim but also someone who demonstrates an admirable strength and resolve. Thrown into this mix is Orlando (Jeremy Renner) a disarming magician who fancies Ewa but also has a checkered past with Bruno. Orlando and Bruno may be cousins but their family ties breed more contempt than affection.
From this complex setup of characters, the story has the potential to explore a few well-trodden plots. Gray is far more interest in the lives of his characters than in crafting a story that follows easy, tidy arcs. Conflicts are resolved, but not always as expected. Gray is far more interested in soaking in the lives of his characters than making sure he hits story beats at the right tempo.
To this end, the film’s thematic underpinnings also become more of a backdrop than anything else. Throughout the film there are several pivotal character points for Ewa that involve her Catholic beliefs and evoke ideas of sin, penance, punishment, grace and forgiveness. And while Gray leverages these ideas to great effect, he never makes the film about these ideas. It’s always about the characters and their lives and these moments of faith for Ewa only emerge when it makes sense for her character, not when Gray wants to make sure his film has deeper meanings.
The stellar performances give extra life to these characters. Joaquin Phoenix, in particular, gives Bruno an entire new dimension on screen. He’s able to express a bitter tension between a soft tenderness and consuming obsession that makes even his sleaziest actions understandable. His irrationality becomes a tragic character flaw, he’s a slave to his desires and emotions, a victim to feelings he cannot control or contain.
Marion Cotillard gives Ewa that inner-strength that allows the character to also have a streak of defiance and boldness in a film where it would be quick to allow her status as victim to override and define her as a person. It is a key factor, but Cotillard gives her a fire that makes the character spirited and strong even in the midst of an overwhelming sense of helplessness and weakness.
The result is that The Immigrant is a film of deep integrity to its characters. A lesser film might worry about pacing or hitting a satisfying plot point. Instead, Gray places his characters in a time and a world removed from our own and traces their lives in all its gritty and unsatisfying detail. It’s at once familiar with certain classics of cinema, but Gray’s signature sense of fatalism marks it as something fresh and special 40 years removed from its inspirations.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing