Sometimes you start watching a movie and you are instantly transported to another time, another place, and you just know that the film is doing its job. You’re invested. Other times, you put on a film and you’re brought to another time and place in relation to your own life. You’re given this nostalgic feeling that coats the way you embrace the film. It touches you because it causes you to remember fonder times. Still, other times, you put on a film and it transports you to another time and place with regard to cinema itself. It recalls a past era of filmmaking, a time when films were crafted differently.
‘The Immigrant’ kind of does all three of those things.
For me, ‘The Immigrant’ reminds me very much of a period film made in the 80’s. There is this overcoat of steamy, almost palpable sensuality that reminds me a lot of the soap operatic tones of many 80’s films. It isn’t theatrical, but then again most of those films weren’t either. They were suppressed in a way, and yet they exuded this cinematic sweat, if you can call it that. The cinematography, use of light and color (all that yellow and orange) also call to mind the 80’s. There is a musky vibrancy, an almost muted light that actually glistens on every frame. There is no denying that the film takes place in the 20’s, for the world, that time, is captured with such authenticity, and yet the filmmaking feels like an homage to a much later time, when filmmaking was beginning to shift.
Growing up in the 80’s, early 90’s, I found myself recalling those night, nestled on the couch with my older sisters, as we secretly took in all those films my parents deemed too heavy for us. I felt myself overcome by that warmth, that nostalgia.
‘The Immigrant’ tells a story of a young polish woman, Ewa, trapped by circumstance as she enters American with her sick sister. Her sister, detained at Ellis Island due to her assumed illness, is scared and alone. Ewa attempts to leave herself, but due to a rumor about her conduct aboard the ship, she is deemed a woman of loose morals and sentenced to deportation. That is when she meets Bruno, a seemingly kind hearted man who strikes a deal to get Ewa released into America. He then offers her a place to live and a job as a seamstress. Ewa is initially weary, but she begins to trust Bruno. Then things change. Bruno’s intentions become clear as it is made known the truth about his business, the girls he orders around and the jobs they perform. Ewa doesn’t want any part of this world, but she has her sister to think about, and soon she is coerced into a life of prostitution.
While ‘The Immigrant’ could have easily been nothing more than a scenario type film (one of those movies that tells a simple story, nothing more), it truly proves to be so much more than that. While telling a story about a woman’s struggle to establish a life for herself and save the one she loves most, her sister, the film also delves into some weighty ideas on love, loyalty and obsession. I was truly intrigued by the development of Bruno, a man who seems like a sly and manipulative man and yet his character arc towards the end, his selflessness, really created such complex layers. This was not an easy character, not an easy feeling, and I applaud James Gray (who wrote and directed this film) for not shooting for a lazy stereotype. Bruno does some awful things, but Gray erases all black and white from this film and simply gives us a lot of…grey.
The film is technically perfect, but not in a way that feels stale or too clinical. There is no coldness here. The film, from start to finish, is laced with this undeniable warmth. You can feel the emotion exuding from every character, every situation, every frame. The performances are stellar here. Renner, who has a supporting role as a traveling magician with a sordid past and eyes for Ewa, is convincing and engaging. He has a tricky and almost thankless role, one that could have become a gimmick, and yet he sells his scenes and even creates an edge of mystery that leaves the audience guessing as to his real intentions as well. But really, this is all about Joaquin Phoenix (who is really establishing a revitalized career for himself) and Marion Cotillard (not only the best working actress, but easily the most interesting and varied). These two are sensational here. Phoenix has a lot more at stake, for his character’s arc would not work without a richly developed performance, and he sells it and then some. Still, Cotillard simply IS Ewa. She melts into every frame, embracing this character and transcending the screen. Her eyes milk out every ounce of backstory, but in such a reflective and progressive way. You never once detect an actress here, for she is simply an impoverished immigrant grounded by her dire circumstance.
Honestly, this is one of the very best films I’ve seen this year; a true triumph of technical, emotional and artistic filmmaking. This is a film with a beating heart and a warm soul, a film that reminds us all why filmmaking is all about storytelling, and how sitting down to watch a good movie can feel so much like reading a good book.
A+, without question! I wish that I could say that Oscar was going to salivate all over this, and quite frankly had this come out in the 80's it probably would have won ten Oscars, but this was a very early in the year release and Weinstein pretty much abandoned it. It should be recognized in many categories, including Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress and Actor...but if it gets any attention it'll most likely be in the techs. I'd love to see it recognized for it's Cinematography and Score, but I have a feeling this will be completely ignored; unfortunately.