Few films have captured the level of complex pragmatism it must take for a desperate person to survive in a completely new place with no support or ideological context. James Gray’s arresting period-piece melodrama The Immigrant achieves this feat. Examining in fine detail the difficult experiences of a Polish woman named Eva (Marion Cotillard) who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921, the film constructs a sense of prolonged panic out of the most poetic images. Easy answers don’t exist in this film, just life-changing decisions that must be made quietly on a moment’s notice. Early scenes confirm that Eva has already been forced to make a few tough choices on the voyage across the Atlantic.
From The Immigrant’s magnificent opening shot, a hypnotic zoom-out starting on the Statue of Liberty and eventually including a well-dressed man staring into the distance, Gray establishes a sense of wooziness in the mise-en-scene. Inside the processing center, lines of swaying bodies fill the dour space and long corridors stretch in all directions. It’s a highway of varying perspectives and stories, the American dream in transit. Despite the extreme foreignness of this situation for the characters involved, their hope remains alive. “We’ll make our own families,” Eva confidently says to her sickly sister as they walk in single file. Seconds later, the coughing young woman is quarantined in the island infirmary, leaving Eva alone in a gray new world.
And the obstacles keep coming. Labeled a woman of “loose morals” due to a previous incident on the boat, Eva immediately faces deportation. That is until a shady theater owner named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) steps in to help, offering housing and employment, but at what price? Stuck between moving forward and sliding backward, Eva takes a chance. What’s most fascinating about their dynamic, though, is that Eva understands from the very beginning that Bruno will be poisonous. But he represents her only option, so she takes it.
That Eva falls deeper into a bad situation—becoming one of Bruno’s “Little Doves” in a vaudeville-style peep show and the more salacious activity that follows—isn’t surprising. Gray’s treatment of the material, however, is never less than nuanced and engaging on an intimate scale. Family infrastructure, something he has explored to some extent in all of his films, becomes more complicated and warped in The Immigrant. Gray usually positions a male protagonist and a matriarch at the center of his work, but here a single woman without a family is being manipulated by a false patriarch. When asked by Bruno if the meager compensation she receives is worth the sacrifice of her body and soul, Eva responds: “I love money. I hate you. And I hate myself.”
Shame also plays a pivotal role in The Immigrant, both as an emotion felt by multiple characters and a way of thematically expressing the cost of pragmatism in their lives. Bruno suppresses his romantic feelings for Eva in order to exploit her business prospects. Eva foresees another potential partnership with Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) only to have her hopes dashed in an instant. This trend of self-despair climaxes with a pair of separate, messy confessionals, intense scenes that solidify The Immigrant as a great study of emotional contradiction.
For all its thematic heft, The Immigrant also functions as a striking cinematic collage of tinted shades and shadows. Whether it’s the luminous shot of colorful light streaming through massive stained glass windows, or a police beat-down inside a tunnel lit entirely by flashlights, the film’s images, shot by the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, have a ghostly quality that directly connect with the characters' desperate will to survive. For all its internal despair, The Immigrant never loses a sense of hope and resiliency. You should look no further than the film’s brilliant final shot of mirrors and windows working in harmony to see an image of a pair of lost souls finally diverging for the better.Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.