The word reads white on the black screen, “The Immigrant,” but then the white is filled out in red, the color of life, blood. So the word shifts from classification to drama. The next thing we see is the Statue of Liberty, as observed from a boat approaching Ellis Island on a misty day. Movies have taken this route before, and the cinematographer on The Immigrant, Darius Khondji, surely intends a homage to The Godfather and its great cameraman, Gordon Willis, who died last week. There is a difference. The Godfather, parts I and II, is a success story. The Corleones become American heroes, businessmen, power-brokers, whereas in The Immigrant, two sisters totter on the brink of survival. That points to another shift: The Godfather films, great as they are, do not allow much narrative respect for a woman’s point of view.
Though made in the early 1970s, Francis Coppola’s films aspired to the cinematic moods and rhythms of the ’40s and the ’50s. They were lush with that nostalgia, made manifest in clothes, decor, those walnut interiors, the family of fond, supporting players, and a decisive treatment of murderous set-pieces in which brave outlaws flourished. The Immigrant, by James Gray, is set in 1921 and it wants to be a film from that time. Of course, it has sound—music, the noises of the streets and vaudeville theater; there are even passages where Marion Cotillard speaks Polish. Moreover, the film is in color, or the exhausted stain of color that Gray and Khondji will allow. But it is a silent film, the beating heart of which lives in the face of Cotillard who is as radiant and desperate as Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Wind. This is a film about a woman’s face, gazing at the stony rhetoric of Liberty and wondering if it can be more than a cruel joke for her.
This extraordinary film proposes that not every immigrant had it as good or easy as Vito Corleone. Ewa (Cotillard) and Magda Cybulska are from Katowice in Silesia and they have come across the ocean without money. Magda has tuberculosis and Ewa has acquired the reputation of handling the voyage with “low morals.” Magda will be put in quarantine on Ellis Island, but Ewa is spirited away by a somber businessman, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who sees potential in her. That deal is more indicated than illustrated, for this is a chaste film, but Ewa becomes a prostitute to earn money and retain the chance of rescuing Magda. In the tawdry strip show Bruno promotes, Ewa will be “Lady Liberty,” made up to look as beautiful as Sylvia Sidney from the 1930s, and with a wreath on her brow.
The Immigrant is the story of a struggle, as Ewa is torn between Bruno and his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), a Houdini-like escape artist with dreams of getting away to California. But that battle is part of larger questions: Can Magda be saved, and will Ewa protect her honor and her soul in all the compromises she must make? I will not disclose the ending, but the urge to see a sequel to this story is as strong as it was with The Godfather.
“James Gray” (the director) sounds like an old Anglo-American name, but immigrants learned that masquerade very early. Gray’s grandparents were Russian immigrants and many of his films have tracked the way eastern Europeans have managed in America. In Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night, this has turned on men struggling to survive in a criminal world. The films have had intense family feeling, smothering color schemes in the brown-gray-black range, and a number of intriguing but attendant female roles—Moira Kelly and Vanessa Redgrave in Little Odessa; Charlize Theron and Faye Dunaway in The Yards; Eva Mendes in We Own the Night.
It has seemed apparent that Gray had a great film in him—and he has picked up a more fervent following in Europe than in America. But his films were a little guilty over their own expressiveness. They were sometimes prolonged in a way that suggested weary or crushed feelings. There seems to have been a romantic in Gray, along with a need to repress that urge. The films were locked in place as eastern European versions of The Godfather. But then, in 2008, Gray made a film that moved away from that enclosing world. In Two Lovers, a forlorn, depressed man (Joaquin Phoenix) was torn between two women (played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw). In hindsight, that looks like a stepping-stone toward a story in which the male characters are secondary to Ewa. And it is on Ewa’s wings and eyes that Gray has taken flight.
This is a story about the degradation of a woman, or about her enforced submission to events that could be degrading. Ewa’s career in prostitution is clear, but Gray spares us and his actress the details of sexual action, nudity, or violence. Instead, he trusts the face of Marion Cotillard to show us the mixed feelings in Ewa: the onslaught of experience and the development of sadness, bitterness, and even kindness. She becomes more conventionally beautiful as she is exploited, but we are left to see—in her eyes, maybe the best eyes in modern film—that her honor has remained intact. It’s not that Cotillard or the film ever spells out Ewa’s dire progress. It’s not that a saving love story intervenes. Ewa knows she must come through on her own, and Cotillard trusts the camera to show what she is feeling.
Jeremy Renner brings lightness and charm to the picture as the illusionist, and we feel how far he represents hope for Ewa. I find it harder to summarize my feelings about Joaquin Phoenix. Gray adores the actor; this is their fourth film together. Phoenix becomes increasingly impressive as the film advances and the ugliness and conflict emerge in Bruno. Ewa has altered him, when he thought he was using her. But I think the actor impedes the first part of the film when Bruno should beguile and mislead Ewa. Phoenix does not do energy or charisma on-screen. Is he perplexed, or depressed? I’m not sure, but his plainness is in such contrast to Cotillard’s vivacity that something seems missing. Imagine the younger John Malkovich in this part, or Christian Bale.
That is my only reservation, though I am mystified that a magnificent film that played at Cannes in 2013 has taken a full year to find. This is Gray’s most mature work, and the picture raises Cotillard to a select pantheon. But there’s more to be said. Ever since Chaplin’s 1917 version of The Immigrant, American cinema has glossed over the reality of being in the huddled masses. After all, the people who built the industry had come that way themselves, and it endorsed their own astonishing success to assert that there was enough glory and gold to satisfy millions—especially if they kept buying movie tickets. Gray’s The Immigrant insists on a more plausible American history: Immigrants were abused, exploited, and enslaved, and millions endured hardship and failure without relief or sentimental story-telling. They had to keep a straight face and whistle the happy-go-lucky songs of Irving Berlin, while searching for a name as cute as his reworking of Israel Isidore Baline.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.