To look at Marion Cotillard is to look at a woman with the kind of face that seems ageless. I don’t just mean that she’s beautiful (though she is that)—it’s also that she looks like she’s stepped out of another time. It’s no surprise that some of her most significant roles as an actor have been in period pictures, playing Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (for which she won that surprise Best Actress Oscar) and a dream vision of the Jazz Age in Midnight in Paris. In The Immigrant, her face could be that of a figure from an old photograph of Ellis Island, or of a forgotten silent film actress. The director, James Gray, uses her like D. W. Griffith used Lillian Gish: she becomes a vessel for tragic pathos at the same time that she blows us away with her star power.
The Immigrant is set in New York City in 1921. Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish woman who has come to America with her sister in the hopes of making a better life. The sister is sick and is held up at the border, leaving Ewa to fend for herself alone in the city. She’s taken under the wing of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who claims to be an impresario but who may be a glorified con artist and a pimp. Bruno’s cousin and rival Orlando (Jeremy Renner), also a showman (he’s an illusionist), is a gentler sort who also takes an interest in helping Ewa.
As a parable about American dreams, and the ways in which they may only come true if the dreamer is willing to take a serious beating, The Immigrant is both clear-eyed and sentimental. It evokes the big emotions of the silent era (and Darius Khondji’s cinematography gives everything the burnished look of a photo seen by candlelight) at the same time that it refuses to perpetuate the myth of an America that welcomes with open arms those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. There’s a grandness and a classicism to The Immigrant that, like Marion Cotillard’s face, feels ageless.