The Films of 2014: The Immigrant

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. 

Caught between the two men, desperate to reunite with her sister at any cost, Cotillard’s Ewa is a captivating heroine.  The film understands that the immigrant experience is one in which strong-willed people like Ewa risk being reduced to their most vulnerable selves in the name of survival.  “To them we are worse than nothing,” a fellow Polish refugee remarks to Ewa, in reference to the American immigration officers who none too gently herd them into holding cells like cattle.  But where we might expect Ewa to respond with some show of solidarity, she affects an air of pride: “I am not nothing.”  For Gray, to be an immigrant is to shuttle constantly between moments of abject worthlessness and unshakable resolve.  It’s the kind of role for which Cotillard—who can look as fragile as an antique doll, then shoot a gaze that cuts you to the core—is perfectly suited.  (Her role in 2012’s Rust and Bone also played on this strong/weak dynamic, and her other star turn this year, in the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, seems similarly pitched.)

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.

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