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MIFF 2014: The Immigrant

James Gray’s The Immigrant is a film which defies classification. An Ellis Island melodrama from the dawn of modern America, this period piece feels at once familiar and completely foreign. Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her tubercular sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) arrive in New York in 1921. The sisters are soon separated when Magda’s illness is noted by immigration officers and Ewa’s own reputation as a woman of “low morals” follows her to America; Ewa is denied entry into the country while Magda is held in hospital on Ellis Island, both sisters facing deportation. Ewa soon finds herself in the debt of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a pimp with connections on the island who arranges for her release. Despite being enamoured with Ewa, Bruno is quick to exploit her desire to reunite with her sister, and soon she is both on stage in Bruno’s burlesque show and coerced into prostitution. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician who goes by the stage name Orlando the Magnificent, falls for Ewa and promises to take her west, away from this new life.

There are notes of greed, betrayal, redemption, and the ever-present American Dream in The Immigrant, but none are overpowering enough to contain Gray’s vision. The characters themselves dodge archetypes – Bruno is not quite a predator, Ewa is not his prey, and Emil is certainly no saviour. The three would form a love triangle, if Bruno and Emil’s rivalry didn’t predate Ewa’s arrival, and if Ewa had love for either of them. What is apparent is the level of craft on display. Gray’s vision of 1920s New York is understated but precise, shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji in a manner intentionally evocative of Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather Part II. While Phoenix threatens to oversell his Bruno Weiss at times, he and Renner are grounded by Cotillard, and when the camera is not exploring the details of early-20s Manhattan, it rests on her face in close up. The film is at its best in these moments; while the opening and closing shots are some of the more memorable in recent American cinema, it is an extended close up of Cotillard on stage as Lady Liberty herself that is its most haunting.

If there is a clear theme which comes closest to defining The Immigrant it is one of survival. Each of the three leads are survivors by nature, but their individual ability to persevere in this new world varies. Despite her relative youth, Ewa is a veteran; having already escaped a war which took both her parents, she has developed the skills required to endure in this post-war world. Bruno and Emil lack Ewa’s determination, anchored by a devotion to her sister born of love but maintained out of desperation. Their immediate infatuation with Ewa seems like a misstep at first, but it soon becomes clear that these relationships are forced by characters themselves. The two latch on to Ewa under the guise of true love, a convenient mask for their survival instincts. But much like The Immigrant itself, Ewa cannot be contained.

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