Survival, by its very definition, is a sin.
That's the worldview of Ewa, a Polish refugee who is freshly arrived in 1921 New York in James Gray's The Immigrant, and that's pretty much the way Gray's characters think throughout his increasingly important filmography.
That's because one cannot survive without compromising oneself, and often unholy measures are involved.
The Immigrant is an astonishingly beautiful, irresistibly grim movie starring Marion Cotillard as Ewa, who is negotiating the New World through a benefactor-pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a carny magician (Jeremy Renner). This isn't the Ellis Island tale of America America, or your great-grandparents' story. This is an Ellis Island story as B-movie noir; all dressed up in 1921, sure, but nevertheless imbued with a tawdry feel, bristling with twisted emotions.
We first see Ewa as she arrives at Ellis Island. Her sister is sick with a lung infection and must be confined to the island's medical facility for six months, after which she will be evaluated.
Ewa is initially rejected for entry into the United States because of an incident on the boat ride that calls into question her morals.
She elicits the sympathy of Bruno (Phoenix), who scouts Ellis Island regularly for talent -- he runs a burlesque show and houses his performers in a tenement house. In the show's salute to the diversity of desirable foreign women, she plays, with obvious irony, the Statue of Liberty, but she soon finds out that her duties extend beyond the stage.
Bruno is also a pimp, and she becomes a prostitute in order to get the money to spring her sister.
In walks Orlando the Magician (Renner), a rival of Bruno's who just might be her knight in shining armor.
If this sounds ridiculous -- it is. Gray isn't aiming for realism in his Ellis Island tale, but instead seems to be invoking the carnies and dance hall girls of silent films. And yet The Immigrant seems modern, thanks to the conviction of Phoenix, in a mesmerizing performance (he's almost in full The Master mode); to Cotillard, who finds the sympathy in Ewa, sure, but also her hard edge; and to the cinematography of one of the best, Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris).
Gray has made five films in 20 years: Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers are the others. New York is his canvas, but the American dream is his subject.
Despite her Polish origins, Ewa might even be his ideal American. I am not nobody, she insists. She adapts to her circumstances. She remakes herself.
And she knows she is a commodity.
MovieStyle on 06/13/2014
Print Headline: The Immigrant