The Immigrant is a film of faces. That may seem simple, and perhaps it is, but James Gray‘s newest film does not try to be inscrutable. This is one of the virtues of melodrama, the raw and transparent quality of its emotion beaming from close-ups of the human face. Marion Cotillard‘s open, Catholic performance falls about her eyes, somewhere between Maria Falconetti and a Merchant Ivory adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel. Joaquin Phoenix‘s brow, meanwhile, seems ever wider and more brutal as he oscillates between compassion and selfish violence. Jeremy Renner wears eyeliner, like the star of a theoretically possible Mike Leigh film about Yiddish vaudeville entertainers.
The plot is relatively straightforward, even initially cliché. Cotillard is Ewa, a woman just off the boat from Poland, with her sister Magda in tow. Yet when the Ellis Island officials notice that Magda is ill she is rushed off to the infirmary, where she will recuperate or face deportation. Ewa, meanwhile, is put in a precarious position by a vaguely-alluded-to incident on her journey that has cast her as a “woman of low morals.” Threatened with deportation herself, she appeals to a passing American for help.
The man in question is Bruno (Phoenix), who helps Ewa escape the island. And, as is always the case in this sort of story, he turns out to be a burlesque impresario and pimp. Determined to bribe her sister’s way into the United States, she lets him recruit her. He inevitably falls in love with her, which manifests not as tenderness but rather an insistent desire for ownership. Then, as the film’s first act comes to a close, she meets Bruno’s cousin Orlando the Magician (Renner). He’s dashing, apparently successful and completely stricken with her beauty.
As predictable as this set-up seems, so in many ways is the character of Ewa herself predetermined. For much of the film her emotional expression takes the place of her personal agency. There is a fine line between a script that uses this lack of power to critique society and a script that is secretly disinterested in its female protagonist. Is this The Life of Oharu or is it something much less complex? At times it is reminiscent of Old Hollywood pictures that placed their leading ladies in difficult situations so that we might gaze at their exquisite suffering. Gray usually falls on the right side of this line but sometimes, particularly regarding Ewa’s very quick transition from resistance to acceptance of prostitution, things blur in a frustrating way.
Yet the archetypal characters and romantic entanglements of this film are not haphazard accidents of bad writing. The Immigrant is at times staggeringly beautiful, not only representing the New York of the early 1920s but inhabiting its artistic space. There are countless films that could be compared to Gray’s work, but the artist most clearly linked to this stylistic achievement is not a filmmaker at all. The Immigrant is, in essence, an opera by Giacomo Puccini without (much) singing.
Gray is pretty clear about this. La Rondine and La Fanciulla del West are heard in the film, including an appearance by Joseph Calleja as legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. Puccini’s works, while in Italian, more than once had their world premieres at the Metropolitan Opera in New York not too long before The Immigrant is set. The original score by Christopher Spelman is in the style of Puccini, underscoring the most emotional moments with the sort of mood painting that you’d find in La Boheme. Cotillard gets two monologues that feel like arias, one of which takes place in the confessional of a church. Close-ups take the place of song as the emotional outlet of characters, the tools of cinematic melodrama standing in for the tools of turn-of-the-century opera.
Darius Khondji‘s golden cinematography adds a warmth that elevates Cotillard and her world without using glamour. A number of the sets are stunning recreations of places that we don’t consider particularly glitzy, from Ellis Island and a Manhattan prison to the tenements of the Lower East Side and the trash heap in a park. Towering above the actors, they evoke the gargantuan backdrops of Franco Zeffirelli. This use of grand artistic gesture to tell the story of poor immigrants falls right into the spirit of Puccini and the verismo movement, which took opera away from royalty and divinity and gave it to the people.
As such, Gray has come up with a slightly new way of bringing New York City to the big screen, no small feat. The Immigrant offers a glimpse of how film might have looked like if synchronized sound and color had been invented years prior, and as such almost exists outside of time and the natural progression of artistic tradition. That alone is worth the price of admission, never mind the tears.
The Upside: The Immigrant is a relentlessly beautiful film, passionately evoking operatic melodrama in the tenements of old New York.
The Downside: Marion Cotillard’s character is sometimes left without either agency or evidence of internal conflict, falling into the unfortunate traps of the archetypal narrative of the woman forced into prostitution.
On the Side: Tenor Joseph Calleja has been on a soundtrack once before, that of the much-panned Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle No Reservations.