THE IMMIGRANT B
USA (120 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: James Gray
USA (120 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: James Gray
What led the American director to this subject matter is open to question, the last big wave of European immigration, which is given the epic, grandiose treatment, co-written by the director himself along with the late Richard Menello, reportedly with Marion Cotillard in mind, where it's the overwrought writing that is the weakest link in this picture. Gray met the actress over dinner with her husband Guillaume Canet, claiming he had never seen her in anything before, but was instantly drawn to her, “I thought she had a great face, and not just physically beautiful because she is, but a haunted quality, almost like a silent film actress. I’ve talked about this, but she reminded me of Maria Falconetti in the Carl Theodor Dreyer film THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), able to convey depth of emotion without dialogue specifically. I watched every film of hers I could get my hands on. And then I knew I had to write something for her. So that’s the genesis of this thing. I wrote the movie for her and Joaquin Phoenix, and if they hadn’t wanted to do the movie, I’m not sure I would have made it.” Taking a turn from his earlier contemporary work dominated by male characters, Gray gets the idea to craft a historical period drama set in 1912 New York City, including the arrival at Ellis Island, the gateway for millions into America (which shut down shortly afterwards in 1924, allowing only refugees afterwards), where he attempts to recreate the emotional and moral price of the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of a female protagonist alone in America, separated from her family, where she’s forced to navigate her way through murky waters. Guided by his own family’s history (it’s their photo in the locket), the movie is largely based on the experiences of the director’s grandparents who were Russian immigrants that came through Ellis Island in 1923, a historical period that saw a large influx of Italian immigrants, as this is the era of Sacco and Vanzetti (2006) and the First Red Scare of 1919-20, when the nation was caught up in a witch hunt hysteria of rampant racism and xenophobia. In this setting, shot onsite, Marian Cotillard is Ewa Cybulska, seen arriving at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), Polish immigrants who share a similar dream of making a new life in America. Things go badly from the start, however, as Magda is instantly pulled out of the line and quarantined with a lung disease (later diagnosed as tuberculosis), leaving Ewa to fend for herself, promising she’ll find her sister, though she is separated as well and placed into a line where she’ll be sent right back to Europe, as written reports from the ship during the crossing suggest she “may be a woman of bad morals.” Hovering around the proceedings is the strange figure of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who seems to prey on the misfortunes of others, as he notices Ewa in line and bribes an official to admit her into his custody. The bustling street life, where Gray recreates the crowded streets of the tenement-era Lower East Side in the Bronx, bathed in sepia tones by cinematographer Darius Khondji, recall similar scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974).
Bruno brings her back into his home in a largely Jewish neighborhood, where his use of Yiddish commands a certain respect, as people don’t bother him, where we soon learn he runs a small burlesque strip theater that is a front for a whorehouse run by the daunting figure of his boss, Rosie (Elena Solovey). Immediately the audience gets a sense of his moral manipulation, where he pretends to treat her kindly and with respect while forcing her into the compromising position of having no other choice. Bruno’s method of bribery is the only hope to get Magda (confined to the hospital) released, but that requires a large sum of money, while Ewa remains penniless. Cast as the Statue of Liberty in his Prohibition era theater, she is the subject of whistles and catcalls, becoming one of his most popular acts, even as she’s seen recoiling at being touched, where her initiation into the business is particularly degrading, where Cotillard plays the part with excessive fragility and innocence, reminiscent of Björk’s overwrought performance in Lars von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), both forced into insufferable misery, where economic circumstances lead them into the depths of human depravity and despair. If there is anything particularly troubling about this picture, it is this incessant tone of torment and suffering, where the entire film is cast in a cloud of neverending gloom, where most of it feels like a funeral dirge. Lacking the lyrical poeticism of Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), one of his bleakest films, Gray elevates the suffering of unappreciated and misunderstood women, using the classic Hollywood-style soap opera treatment of overly manipulative melodramas by Barbara Stanwyck in STELLA DALLAS (1937) or Greta Garbo in CAMILLE (1937), where there’s also an element of Maria Falconetti’s saintly masochism, made worse by the wretchedness of sexual servitude. Ewa escapes to her aunt and uncle, relieved, as she was told by immigration authorities that their address was invalid, where there is a moment where she can breathe again, only to be turned back over to officials for deportation back to Poland, as her uncle runs a “legitimate business” and refuses to be stained by her “morals” accusations. While awaiting departure, one of the strangest developments in the entire film is an entertainment sequence for detainees at Ellis Island, which includes no less than Italian tenor Enrico Caruso singing Puccini, and Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) doing a levitation act, both given a near mythical context to reinforce the idea of America as a land of dreams and unimagined opportunities.
It’s not Orlando, who attempts to befriend her, however, but Bruno who returns to spare Ewa from deportation, again springing a bribe for her release, but only under the pretext that she’ll work for him as a prostitute on a 50/50 basis. While Orlando promises her hope, it’s Bruno that deals in the harsh aspects of reality, making the necessary connections by exploiting women for money, pitting the two men against one another as rivals in love, which seems overly ridiculous as Ewa can be obtained by any man for a price. This love triangle is reminiscent of Gelsomina’s fate in Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954) or Mieze in Fassbinder’s BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980), thoroughly mistreated women (prostitutes) who are desperate to find a way out of their economic and emotional strangleholds. While there’s plenty that feels overbearing and lacks any realistic connection to the audience, where the American dream of freedom is bathed in a baptism of soul crushing suffering, what distinguishes this film is Ewa’s unwavering hold on her own self worth, her continuing devotion to her sister, and her faith in God, where she says in Polish “Nie jestem niczym (I am not nothing),” becoming a prominent theme echoed later in the film. Even as her lowly position moves from bad to worse, where she is continuously debased by her mortal sins, egged on by Bruno who cheerfully exclaims, “You helped your sister today!” in the end she only ends up thoroughly hating herself. Easily the most poignant scene of the film takes place in an immense Catholic church where Ewa offers a prayer and a full-blown confession to a priest, confessing her “many, many sins,” where she asks “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” While acknowledging being raped on passage, where people were starving without food or water, her thoughts are heart wrenching as she longs for absolution, yet remains convinced, despite the redemptive power of her faith, that her sins have condemned her to eternal damnation. While Bruno is a Jewish street kid, reminded of his place by the police who beat him, call him racial slurs, and steal his money, with no illusions about the necessity of hard work, Ewa’s compassionate nature contrasts his seeming indifference, where the film combines the Catholic and Jewish concepts of sin and spiritual salvation, using Ewa’s arduous journey as a life of exile and suffering, where she’s seen as a mythic innocent, despite her sins, recalling the meadows back home in a surprisingly lyrical dream sequence. It’s Bruno—pimp, ultimate betrayer and manipulator—that delivers an epic notion of self-loathing in a tortuous monologue where he’s so disgusted with himself that he literally “feels” as if he’s already condemned to damnation, yet it’s Ewa who tenderly consoles him, the repugnant man who may have condemned her to the same fate. In the finale, the two share separate fates, shown in a split-screen image captured in the same shot, where the notion of forgiveness remains an unanswered question, as Ewa’s thoughts of transcendence remain at odds in a coldly indifferent and uncaring world, but one hopes she may yet reach a better place.
Enrico Caruso, along with Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, and Lionel Hampton and his orchestra, among others, all performed at Ellis Island as one of the steps along their world tour that included entertaining U.S. military troops. Also, Cotillard had to memorize twenty pages of Polish dialogue, while Maja Wampuszyc, who played her nervous aunt in the film, taught the actress how to speak Polish.