There’s a running gag, if it can even be called that, in James Gray’s The Immigrant in which a despicable pimp, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), takes his whores from the Bandit’s Roost club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to either Central or Prospect Park—one of few irrelevant details in a film of profound emotional and narrative richness—and parades them around as the fallen daughters of the city’s richest men. The brilliance of the scene derives in part from how Bruno’s comically bald-faced deceit is understood as no less a performance than the magic shows put on by Orlando (Jeremy Renner), another showman who bewitches a Polish emigrant, Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard). Bruno’s perverse con is to sell the fantasy of having sex with women whose lucky birthrights would seem to preclude them from the pursuit of upward mobility, and it reveals Gray’s humane understanding of how at odds that aspiration is with reality. Pimp, whore, and john alike are in on the joke: that the American dream’s only universal truth is the desire to fuck it.
Though it suggests a continuation of Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door, the story of a dirt-poor and profoundly superstitious Sicilian family’s sojourn across the angry waters of the Atlantic toward Ellis Island, The Immigrant couldn’t be more different in style. Where Crialese’s film, almost phantasmagorically shot by Agnès Godard, reflected in its bombastic aesthetic the overblown beliefs of American life that have driven countless immigrants to the United States, Gray’s period melodrama suggests a daguerreotype come to painfully sobering and stubborn life. In its stripped-down realism and blistering fixation on its main character’s grappling with life and mortality, The Immigrant feels closer in spirit to Roberto Rossellini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bergman. From its almost unrelenting focus on Cotillard’s haunted face, ever-registering Ewa’s progression to a newer understanding of the existential complexities of the world into which she’s been thrust, to its literally prismatic final shot, an epiphanous collage of Ewa and Bruno’s travels to an ostensibly hopeful tomorrow, the film is Gray’s Voyage to Italy.
Throughout The Immigrant, Ewa is caught between Bruno and Orlando, a magician she first encounters during an unfortunate return trip to Ellis Island, where her sister resides inside an infirmary, and then again at the Bandit’s Roost, this isn’t exactly the story of a love triangle. Ewa, having survived a war that saw her parents beheaded, is too suspicious of both Bruno and Orlando’s agendas to ever come close to loving them, and the men themselves seem to regard her less as an object of affection than as an asset; even Orlando, whose intentions would initially appear to be more sincere than Bruno’s, seems drawn to her less for what he can give her than for what he can take away from someone else. No, the The Immigrant, from its multiple scenes depicting Ewa negotiating her way in and out of Ellis Island to her struggle to snatch humiliation from the cruel jaws of compromise, is above all else a study of the immigrant experience in this country as a seemingly endless series of dehumanizing transactions.
If this isn’t Gray’s warmest or wooziest vision to date it’s because of the way the film’s purview is so fiercely, almost obstinately yoked to Ewa’s stalwart mindset—and with great purpose. The script, by Gray and the late Richard Menello, is dense with profoundly layered correlations between the artifice of magic and human confession, and there are times when Gray’s articulation of Ewa’s eroding doubts, of her and Bruno’s struggle to tell truth from fiction, danger from asylum, boggle the mind in ways that no magic trick ever could: the Altmanesque use of glass to distort Bruno’s body and convey his untrustworthiness; Ewa’s aunt and uncle walking through the draped doorway in their Greenpoint living room as if into a theater’s backstage; and, most breathtakingly, the symphonic, almost imperceptible zoom in on Ewa as she converses with a meekish john and Bruno kisses her foot. In the end, The Immigrant’s triumph isn’t revealing the illusion of the American dream, but showing how two souls push past doubt and toward an understanding and appreciation of their interdependence as necessary to their human survival.