Our country’s memory of immigration in the early 20th century is often romanticized as an optimistic promise of new beginnings. Interwoven with the American Dream, the trials and tribulations of starting a new life in the United States have been left in the distant behind, ultimately deemed worth wherever we have arrived today. The memory lives on in the form of symbols — Lady Liberty welcoming her new children, an Island of Hope and Tears. Director James Gray remembers a much darker reality with a kind of operatic tone in “The Immigrant” (2014).
“The Immigrant” follows the story of Ewa Cybulska, a rather stunning Marion Cotillard, who comes from Poland with her sister in the early ‘twenties to escape war. Upon being separated from her sister, who is deemed too ill to enter the country, she desperately seeks the assistance of an American named Bruno Weiss, played by the ever repulsive and simultaneously compelling Joaquin Phoenix, to keep from being deported as a woman of “questionable morals.” The wide-eyed, soft-spoken Ewa enters the country with the help of Bruno’s vast network of connections with corrupt officials, and thus begins her journey, which starts as an endeavor to start a new life and ends up a struggle to survive. Bruno falls in love with Ewa, while continuing to demean and manipulate her by promising to help get her sister back. He welcomes Ewa to be part of his collection of his “doves,” in other words hiring her out as a burlesque dancer/prostitute.
Having escaped war in Poland, it is in the land of promise that Ewa becomes hardened until she meets the kind and charismatic illusionist Orlando, an earnest and charming Jeremy Renner, who has trouble keeping up jobs and following through on his promises. Also Bruno’s cousin, he becomes a rival for Ewa’s affections, promising to take her and her sister away from all the harsh darkness her life has become. It’s almost like a Gone-With-the-Wind-esque symbolic structure in its love triangle between two visions of America. One embodies the harsh reality that comes with being able to survive, the other the beautiful hopes and promises that pull us forward but ultimately seem empty or too good to be real.
In the pursuit of a dream there are painful costs and disillusionment. In the search for freedom a sense of agency is ironically lost. And the relationships we treasure or depend on have the capacity to heal and empower but also devastate us. Throughout the film it is near impossible to disentangle the beauty from destructiveness and even the literal shadows in each scene.
The story takes a dark and heavy turn and is overall quite melodramatic while somehow managing to maintain a sense of sincerity. It unfolds in a way that makes it clear the filmmakers are attempting to make a point that goes beyond its surface narrative, but that rarely gets in the way of the authenticity of the world and characters within the story. The three principal actors embody both the realness of their characters as well as their thematic significance, believably keeping up with the melodrama while maintaining the powerful effect of a simple facial expression or muttered line. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and film score by Chris Spelman make the film a work of art, contributing to its overall sense of intensity without coming at the expense of sincerity.
In this darker reconstruction of the memory of the immigrant we are forced to think about — but perhaps never arrive — at the ultimate answer as to what distinguishes resilience from survival. During confession Ewa asks, “Is it a sin for me to survive when I have done so many bad things?” And as lovely and strong as Lady Liberty may stand, the broken chains at her feet are a reminder of the costs of our dreams.