“The waters of the harbor were translucent and aquamarine; they ran thick with shards of ice and white islands as big as polar bears. Ellis Island lay in the distance, its Byzantine domes and blood-red roofs glowing the morning sunshine ... Having passed through already, I knew the power of the Island and feared that I would be possessed. It is a lair of the deepest emotions, where hope has died and flourished, where those who love one another have been separated forever, where anything that can happen to a soul has happened, all in full view of the Battery. It is like a sinking ship just offshore, watched by those who have landed; a court of the world; a purgatory; the turning place of dreams. Once I had set foot again on Ellis Island, I knew that I had come to one of God’s places, and that those of us who had been there were tied to it forever.”
- Mark Helprin, “Ellis Island”
Writing this review has allowed me a great privilege. The privilege I speak of is that of attempting, with what limited persuasive powers I may possess, to introduce a very special film that most readers will not yet have seen. After going to the trouble of seeking out a limited release film that should really be a widely released film, movie critics often find themselves under the responsibility of an imperative: how to convince the film viewer to go out of his or her way to see something that is exceptionally above standard commercialized popcorn fare? How to convince the viewer to make the effort to see a film when the film’s own distribution company (or, more specifically, Harvey Weinstein) has intentionally made it difficult to see the film?
This is not a duty to be taken lightly and I have struggled to decide how to begin. I will beg the reader’s pardon if I may ask two opening questions. First, have you ever been pleasantly taken by surprise, when watching a film, to discover that it was far more meaningful and deeper than you could have imagined? Second, have there ever been little moments in front of the theater screen when you were suddenly convinced that you were watching something that helped you to understand, just a little more clearly, a few of the most important decisions you may make in your life? Whenever viewers can answer these questions in the affirmative, they are referring to films that inevitably turn into classics. The Immigrant will become one of these films.
It is my belief that James Gray is an underappreciated director who has been quietly making great films for the last two decades. Of course, he’s only made five of them. But that’s why every time one of his films is completed, it is an occasion to be rather excited. That is also why it is incredibly frustrating that, in spite of the enchantments he can place upon the screen, his fifth film, The Immigrant, has only now just been given a limited release after having opened at Cannes in May of last year. It is my further humble opinion that, decades from now when we are all dead and gone, film critics and historians may very well consider Gray to be one of the most talented American directors of our time.
Being a film lover, I lend films to my friends frequently in order to (a) attempt to expose them to something new or noncommercialized, and (b) attempt to stimulate what very often will turn into jolly, lengthy, provocative and excited conversations about art, ideas and film-making. Trying to do this is harder than it sounds. It becomes very easy to appear either elitist or condescending, not an impression that anyone genuinely interested in sharing or persuading should give. There may not be many things more frustrating that being shocked at how good or beautiful something is, and then realizing that almost no one else is even bothering to see or to know anything about it. Directors like James Gray are making films that have heart and substance to them. Heart and substance are also two primary qualities that Hollywood is currently and utterly uninterested in providing us. Consequently, over the years, I’ve regularly asked friends if they’ve seen any of Gray’s films. I have yet to ask this to a single one who had.
James Gray does not direct action, horror, romance or comic book blockbusters. All of his films are reflective, sometimes melancholy, sometimes joyful, penetrating and grand studies into the family, history, nature, experience, heritage and culture of poor and lower-middle class America. Little Odessa (1994 – with Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, Moira Kelly) explores the Jewish-Russian neighborhoods of Brooklyn, asking the viewer to think about how crime can threaten and tear apart close family relationships. It does this in a way that feels very real, as if it could be happening just down the street. The Yards (2000 – with Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Faye Dunaway) is about a falsely-convicted man being released on parole who then tries to live honestly without getting involved in the all-consuming crime of the poorer sections of New York City. We Own the Night (2007 – with Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall) is one of the most compelling films about brotherly relationships that I’ve ever seen, telling the story of how family can transcend conflicting personality, ego and self-interest. Two Lovers (2008 – with Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini) is a meditation upon loneliness, depression, impairment of social skills and healthy vs. unhealthy romantic relationships, set in the Jewish-Russian area of Brighton Beach and loosely based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Gray has a Russian-Jewish background and his grandfather immigrated to American in 1923.)
The scope of a classic nineteenth century story was full of human hopes and dreams, as yet undebauched by our own smug, cynical and knowingly ironic thinking. There is something about our modern irony that makes the possibility of plain old damnation, undeserved grace, unrequited selfless love, moral calamity or unexpected redemption seem less true somehow. As a director and a storyteller, Gray is uninterested in modern irony. He takes what could even be described as a classical approach to cinema and outright admits that you could fairly compare The Immigrant to an opera (in particular, the “Suor Angelica” of Giacomo Puccini’s Il Trittico). Gray even argues: “The word ‘operatic’ is often misused to mean over the top, where someone is over-emoting and that does a terrible disservice because ‘operatic’ to me means a commitment and a belief to the emotion of the moment that is sincere.” Most of us are often are incapable of appreciating operas now, but Gray claims that they are “the last island of sincere emotion that exists in our culture.” (If you pay attention, you will notice that Enrico Caruso shows up for a few transcendent moments in The Immigrant – a scene that is an island of sincere emotion indeed. Also, along with the music of Puccini, listen for the music of Richard Wagner and John Taverner.)
In watching The Immigrant, while you can feel the influence of other directors of American epics, like Scorsese, Leone and Coppola, Gray’s influences go even deeper. Besides being a fan of both Scorsese and Dostoevsky, he acknowledges an aesthetic debt to Federico Fellini’s La Strada in particular and to the Ashcan School of Painters in general (Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Bellows, John Sloan, who all painted the daily life of poorer neighborhoods in New York City). In another interview, Gray mentioned that his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, was also influenced by religious paintings. Other influences he has mentioned more than once include John Cassavetes, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Michael Cimmino’s Heaven’s Gate. Unlike almost every other Hollywood director, Gray is interested in creating classics while also being humble about it. “You know it’s so hard to reference these people – it sounds so pretentious, like you think you’re as good as they are or whatever, but my attitude is always ‘steal from the best,’ you know?”
First, Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish Catholic nurse who immigrates to the United States while forced to watch her sister locked away on Ellis Island for tuberculosis. Ewa is lost and alone. Her aunt and uncle, who should have met her on Ellis Island, have not appeared like they promised and have apparently given her a false address. She is vulnerable and needs someone to help her. Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Public Enemies, Rust and Bone) is brilliant in this role and she has been suddenly establishing herself as a star who can burn up the movie screen with a single glance. (Look for her to continue to grow into one of today’s most powerful leading ladies in Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night and as Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth in 2015’s most exciting Shakespeare adaptation.)
Gray has compared Cotillard, in his estimation, to the actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. “It’s like a silent movie actress – she doesn’t have to say anything. There’s so much compassion for her just by the way that she is, her soul. She radiates intelligence as well as physical beauty and, god, that’s the rarest quality.” (The Playlist.) Those film critics who have seen the film cannot praise her enough, and I can happily agree with them: “Marion Cotillard is now the best leading film actress in the world and she’s close to her peak in James Gray’s ‘The Immigrant.’” (David Edelstein, NPR.) “Cotillard can say more with her expressive eyes than others can with their entire bodies, and she gives more depth to Ewa than the screenplay provides.” (Travis Hopson, DC Film Examiner.)
Second, Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno, a nineteenth century purveyor of burlesque entertainment who also arranges for the women who work for him to be prostitutes. It is my belief that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Immigrant may eventually be considered one of the most powerful performances of his career. To suggest this is not to make light of his Oscar caliber acting to date. Besides in Gray’s films, his performances in Walk the Line (2005), The Master (2012) and Her (2013), among others, have proven both his versatility and his rather intense absorption into each of his different character’s beings. (We can also look forward to another special performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming Thomas Pynchon adaptation, Inherent Vice.)
Then, for all his smoothness, Bruno’s fears, anxieties and paranoia are also just below the surface, and they regularly rise unexpectedly into bouts of rage where he transforms from a soft spoken man who has a way of looking down at his shoes whenever being personal, unable to make eye contact, into a violently lethal assailant. His kindness and gentleness towards Ewa can suddenly turn into condemning her for rejecting his advances. And then … if you think this delicate, slightly unhinged, balance can describe Bruno, you’d be wrong. That is only his character at the beginning of the film. While he’s this threat, the story seems to be mostly about Ewa and her response to him. Bruno is part of the background of shame, desperation and hopelessness in which Ewa finds herself. Part of genius of the film is how Bruno suddenly emerges from this background into a fully embodied person – and he turns out to be a person that you didn’t see coming.
Both Ewa and Bruno each have their own different and individual character arcs. Both of them choose to do things that do not fit into how Hollywood would usually stereotype similar characters.
Finally, Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, American Hustle) plays Emil, a rather enigmatic magician who performs illusions and magic tricks at Ellis Island to entertain the immigrants. It is interesting that Gray makes the most direct expressions of the American Dream explicit in the voice of Emil. “Don’t give up the dream. Don’t give up the hope,” he tells the immigrants. Emil is the one who offers Ewa a different kind of hope than Bruno. He offers her another way of looking at her circumstances and an alternative to her vulnerable and compromising position. There is something impulsive and happy-go-lucky about him, and, as a result, he seems much lighter and safer than Bruno.
There is another thought that can help frame how we think of this film. In the West, we pride ourselves today on our “progress.” How easy is it for us to compare ourselves with those from the past for how they viewed and treated women? Our prejudiced ancestors, you see, viewed women as property, as objects, as things to be used, consumed and exploited. But now women can own their own property. Now they can vote. They have equal rights under the law. They can go to any university. Today, if they want to, women can become doctors, lawyers, judges, senators, prime ministers, corporate managers, CEOs, engineers or even soldiers, auto mechanics, truckers, carpenters or electricians. Today, their marriages are not arranged by their fathers or guardians. They have equal rights to no-fault divorce. They can even live socially and professionally successful lives without being married.
So aren’t we so much better than the past?
Of course, this self-satisfaction can arguably be understood as the hypocrisy that it really is. Even a rudimentary introduction to the extent of the sex trafficking and different forms of prostitution that still exist, even in the United States, should be enough to wipe out any ideas we might have about our modern success in rightfully valuing women. In fact, you don’t even have to look at anything currently illegal. A brief investigation into the great power and pervasiveness of the pornography industry is also a easy summary of our contemporary views of women. Another brief investigation into the current standards of the high fashion industry would do the same. “Of course,” a friendly co-worker tells a scared, lonely and increasingly desperate Ewa, “you could always wait for some white knight to come along.” In the world of Gray’s The Immigrant, “white knights” to the rescue are not to be found. How hard are they to find today? How many apparent “white knights” offer modern immigrant women lucrative careers in today’s pornography industry?
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