Marion Cotillard as a sad Polish immigrant who comes to New York in 1921 and joins Joaquin Phoenix’s Burlesque show? And then Jeremy Renner shows up to complete an impending love triangle? Where do I sign up? The Immigrant is the whimsically depressing period piece we’ve been waiting for in 2014, and thanks to Netflix streaming, you can gobble up all the elegant, gorgeous helpings of “how depressing was New York in 1921 if you were dirt poor” from the comfort of your own computer.
In all seriousness, I loved this movie. It’s a hard sell to tell people: “Hey, The Immigrant is streaming on Netflix, it’s really sad and beautifully made and you should see it.” But that’s the truth. It’s one of the few recent movies set in the past that actually works, that looks old. The director, James Gray, captures the dismal yet hopeful feel of 1920s American life. Everything has been realized with artful precision, from the costumes and the make-up to the music and the settings to the stylized gloom. If you ever had some delusional ideal about moving to New York City and making something of yourself, The Immigrant will throw cold water on that happy little dream and hit its mark with icy precision.
But The Immigrant isn’t a depressing movie, really. It has lightness of spirit and it never loses hope. As Cotillard, who plays Eva, learns how to live in a world full of strangers who mostly want to take advantage of her, she develops an intensely unusual relationship with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Bruno, her would-be suitor, employer, pimp, manager, destroyer, and savior. At the beginning of the movie, we see Eva and her sister Magda in a long line of just-off-the-boat Europeans at Ellis Island, where a health inspector is making the rounds to see if any of them are sick. Magda sports a death rattle of a cold (tuberculosis we later discover) that gets her sent to the infirmary. But Eva is healthy and strong and can speak English. Bruno, who manages a seedy striptease act at a seedy club in the city, is there looking for new “talent,” and he plucks Eva from the beleaguered masses. Poor, determined unflinching Eva is unaware of the hard life that lies ahead of her. Marion Cotillard lets us feel pity for her for just a moment before she shows us just how strong Eva really is. But she’s also tender, vulnerable, afraid, confused, greedy, hopeful. You can’t ask for more in a character than to be human and to exhibit all of these conflicting emotions throughout the course of a movie.
Perhaps Bruno fell in love with Eva right from the start, or perhaps his love for her developed over time. But regardless, his relationship with Eva is uncomfortably realistic from the moment he takes her under his wing. He puts her in the show despite her gaucheness and he exploits her quiet beauty, eventually turning her into a prostitute. But we begin to suspect that he really and truly loves her. He’s doing his strange version of looking out for her, which at times feels indefensible. And yet there are moments of real tenderness, of genuine compassion, that constantly throw his character into ambiguous light.
The world of New York in 1921 appears grim and chaotic. The Burlesque show scenes serve as a microcosm of this. Everyone is ambling to get ahead, and yet the idea of coming to America to achieve a kind of crazy idea of happiness—and monetary success too—seems all the more elusive once the reality sets in that this is a desperate place full of desperate people. The camera captures the unfeeling terrain of the city: all brown, stone buildings and grey skies and people shrouded in dark, grungy jackets that make them appear shapeless, faceless, hopeless. The ladies don some color for their shows, sport rings of pearls around their torsos, some bangles on their arms (whatever suits the “look” Bruno creates for them, so long as each girl represents a different culture for his show), and all the while, the film exudes a richness that is overpowering. The world and the texture of The Immigrant is rich and thrilling.
The love triangle that forms between Eva and Bruno and Orlando (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s cousin and a traveling magician, is compelling too. Renner’s performance adds a lightness to the film that is much needed. He’s the first man in Eva’s life who genuinely cares about her, and while she is standoffish at first, she eventually warms up to him. The whole time, we long for Eva to succeed, to save her sister from being deported and for the two of them to start a new and happy life in America, and for maybe a little romance to blossom for Eva as well. The movie isn’t unfeeling in that way—it doesn’t try to manipulate us or take any cheap shots in terms of dramatics. The tragedies—both large and small—feel very much bound up in the difficult milieu of 1920s New York and the plight of the foreigner, so unwanted and yet so vital to the economic and cultural construction of the America we know today. The Immigrant lets us feel the weight of all this, and thanks to the excellent camera-work of Darius Khondji and the direction of James Gray, the film is a magnificently affecting work of art, a powerful and lovely and sad and grim and happy and depressing and hopeful love letter to a time we have now lost to the ghosts of history.
The performance are of Joaquin Phoenix really grabs you and holds you. He’s so pathetic and touching in his love for Eva, so calculating in his misuse of her, so out of control in his jealousy of the happy-go-lucky Orlando. Seeing him lose it and chase Orlando through the drunken crowd at the Burlesque show is quite funny, and seeing him transform into something greater than himself to help Eva is sad, heartbreaking even. Cotillard is fine too. She’s especially good when she becomes a strong character, perhaps too awakened to the reality of her situation. Eva never loses her purpose, even if she loses her way. Most importantly, Eva believes she has value, and there’s a powerful moment when she says to another girl, “I’m not nothing.” She has to say it out loud to believe it. She utters it again later this time directed at someone else, passing it on to Bruno when he’s at his most unlovable, even to her: “You’re not nothing.”
Written by the director and Ric Menello. The lovely and haunting music score was composed by Christopher Spelman. (This film showcases one of the richest uses of music in recent memory. There are so many sounds that linger in this film’s atmosphere: The nun’s singing as they walk down a hall, the church music at the cathedral where Eva goes to make her confession at Candlemas, the tinny, familiar folk songs being played at the Burlesque show.) With Yelena Solovey and Dagmara Dominczyk.