Turning on Netflix the other day, eager to hunker down and binge on the last six episodes, ever, of “The Killing”, I was surprised to learn that The Immigrant, James Gray’s tale of life in New York during the early part of the 20th century, a gorgeous film that I’m almost sure you missed at the theater, is available for streaming. That’s right, like a number of other hot titles have done lately, it skipped right over premium cable channels such as HBO or Starz and went right to Netflix, where we can watch it free (well, not quite free, assuming we’re not pirates and we’ve paid our monthly $7.99).
I’m not here to judge, so either way, let me tell you why you should be interested. (Frankly, the name Marion Cotillard will pique the curiosity of most cinephiles, however, for those of you that require more…)
The beautiful opening shot is of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in mist. (It’s a scene worthy of Chaplin – if he’d had access to the same technology while making his own The Immigrant in 1917.) It’s 1921. Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) a Polish Catholic, has just arrived in New York after fleeing the deprivation caused by the First World War. She and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafian) are seeking a fresh start and their own piece of the American dream. What transpires next is what happens after the promise heralded by that first glimpse of America meets the grim realities of immigrant life. Magda is ill, and she and Ewa are immediately separated. For her part, Ewa, for reasons we don’t yet understand, is classified as a person of ‘questionable morals’ and in danger of being deported. Everything that follows results from Ewa’s efforts to both get her sister off of the island and keep them both from being sent back to Poland.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Is he a Good Samaritan in the right place at the right time, a well-dressed representative of the “Traveller’s Aid Society”? Or is he a pimp? He does in fact produce burlesque shows. And while it does not take long for Ewa, who is desperate rather than naïve, to figure out that her savior is indeed also a predator, Phoenix’s Bruno is no Snidely Whiplash and by no means a simple villain. He’s certainly charming, but is also by turns wicked as well as vulnerable.
At what would seem to be her lowest point, Ewa crosses paths with the suave, and equally as charming magician, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), whom we come to learn, happens to be Bruno’s cousin. He’s instantly smitten. She tries to resist, but he sweeps Ewa off her feet and would appear to be a chance for her to escape the cruel world in which she finds herself. But is he everything he would seem to be? Or is he what the jealous Bruno says he is?
How about both?
There is history between them and that history will practically dictate their futures, but neither Bruno nor Orlando are all of one thing and none of the other. This makes sense, both because life exists in the gray areas, but also because the immigrant experience of the late-19th and early 20th centuries consisted of both struggle and triumph. Part of writer/director James Gray’s point would seem to be that although we now see the transition from the Old World to the New through the prism of time, tinged with nostalgia and family memories, to those making that long journey it was often terrible, and certainly strange.
Ewa is forced into prostitution and rejected by relatives she thought would care for her, but she also must be devious and at times a thief. She is treated with suspicion by some of her new companions, particularly Belva (Dagmara Dominczyk – Mrs. Patrick Wilson – who is wonderful and should be seen more), another of Bruno’s girls. Through it all, Cotillard makes her shine like a diamond in a coal heap. The part of Ewa was written for her and I cannot imagine it without her. Ewa is intensely luminous, vulnerable, fragile and yet dignified. The camera lingers on her face in much the way it might have done with the silent stars of the era in which she’s placed. (She particularly brings Greta Garbo, in her early silent roles, to mind.) Cotillard projects precisely the qualities that would cause not just one, but two men to be prepared to risk everything after just a mere glimpse of her.
Purposely melodramatic, The Immigrant, of course, is not a silent film and in fact has some beautiful dialogue, but cinematographer Darius Khondji has used a soft-focus, luxuriously grainy palette so that it feels almost like a long lost gem from the era it depicts. (If the silent film comparison doesn’t work for you, think Theodore Dreiser and “An American Tragedy”. Bruno has a lot in common with that novel’s protagonist Clyde, whose destruction was brought about by his innate moral and physical weaknesses including a lack of scruples, self-discipline and unfocused ambition. If you need a more recent cinematic comparison, try Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.)
Of course, in a film more interested in mood and feeling than in the mechanics of plot, some elements don’t work, and unfortunately Ewa’s relationship with Orlando seems little more than a structural convenience. While he serves to move the story forward, his character should have been more fully realized and his subplot given more time to develop. I have to wonder if there weren’t more to it that didn’t survive the cutting room.
Ultimately, what we’re left with is a glimpse of early 20th century urban life, complete with a performance by Enrico Caruso (and set to the gorgeous score by Chris Spelman). The “doves” in Bruno’s employ, as well as their customers emulate the Astors and the Vanderbilts of Fifth Avenue in dress and mannerisms. It’s difficult to distinguish art from sleaze, since popular entertainment brought strippers, comedians and musicians together under one roof. Which is America in a nutshell. The tawdry exists side by side with the exquisite, brutality with tenderness. So it is with Bruno, and why we can’t quite separate the lost boy from the scoundrel.
The Immigrant gives us the flip-side, or the mirror image of the American dream. It’s the warts-and-all version of the tale your great grandparents told about their adventures in “coming to America”, the antithesis of the Hollywood-glamorized version one would expect, but probably much closer to the truth.
The Immigrant directed by James Gray, written by Gray with Ric Menello, with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg, and Angela Sarafian. It debuted at Cannes in May 2013, has played film festivals all over the world, and now, thanks to Harvey and The Weinstein Company, can be found on Netflix.