Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Costly Grace: The Immigrant

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

In director James Gray’s previous full-length feature film, 2008’s Two Lovers, a dejected, thirty-year old, bipolar Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) comes home one night to his parents’ Coney Island apartment after a failed date with his shiksa goddess neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). But his evening takes a surprising turn when Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father’s business partner, shows up unexpectedly. They share some nervous tension and giggles over his family’s ancestral photos at first. Yet their initial tentative kiss soon turns soft, and they make love in his bedroom until morning. Gray underscores the entire scene with arias from a CD of Leonard’s, the Puccini beautifully matching the rhythms of the lovers: Crescendo, climax, diminuendo. The operatic current runs strong in this director. Even his 2007 crime drama, We Own the Night, with its ‘80s club scene and Russian Mafia, had a redemptive arc to it right out of classical melodrama. The Immigrant, the new film he also wrote (with Ric Menello), brings that operatic impulse unabashedly to the fore. And the result is as luminous and affecting as its imitated art form.

Opera and melodrama infused the style of The Godfather, Part II forty years ago, and The Immigrant also owes its look and feel to that movie in conscious respects. With its opening reverse zoom on the Statue of Liberty rising through the fog, and gentle tracking shots of southern Europe’s huddled masses in the great hall of Ellis Island, Grey returns us to the atmosphere of Coppola’s picture with startling immediacy. You can almost catch the child Vito Corleone among the tired poor. Of course, the content of this film differs entirely: Coppola’s was a gangster epic, whereas Grey tells the comparatively small story of one Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a Polish emigrant and former nanny who, with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), seeks a new life in America in 1921. But when immigration officials quarantine the tubercular Magda and threaten to deport Ewa on vague suspicions of loose ship behavior, those dreams run awry. Ewa appeals to a nearby stranger named Bruno, who passes himself off as a member of a traveler’s aid society. But, after he bribes the guards to take her through customs, he soon leads her down the shadow side of America’s gold-paved streets. The streets are gilded, it turns out: Bruno in fact has predatory designs on Ewa, initiating her into the world of New York burlesque and prostitution, with himself as both carney huckster and sometime pimp. Any hope she has of raising the money to free her sister rides on assenting to this profession.

Gray continues the visual ode to The Godfather, Part II with his spacious and detailed recreation of the life-world of the Lower East Side. The exterior shot of the tenements is Mulberry Street out of Coppola out of Jacob Rees – is that Robert De Niro carrying a bag of groceries in the background? Cinematographer Darius Khondji has illuminated gaslit New York in golden tones and soft edges. The movie is gorgeous at all times, without a false visual note. Gray shapes every image pictorial, but not in the obsessive way of Mallick or Wes Anderson. He turns his photographic subjects into real characters and gives his actors the freedom to embody them and move naturally as through a lived-in period. It never feels stuffy. Rather, this teeming, cramped urban ghetto evokes Griffith’s portrayal of the same demographic in Intolerance, or, better yet, Broken Blossoms.

Jeremy Renner as Orlando, in The Immigrant
In fact the latter – with its delicate heroine struggling against an unstable, violent man – makes for The Immigrant’s other prime cinematic comparison. Like Griffith, Gray draws on the archetypal characters and narrative of 19th century melodrama. Ewa, the innocent women who falls from purity to dire straits. Bruno, the bad man who pulls her down. And Emil, his cousin (Jeremy Renner), the good man who takes pity on her. Ewa encounters him while detained yet again on Ellis Island, watching spellbound as he performs levitation and disappearing acts out of Houdini under the stage name Orlando. He’s spellbound, too, by her beauty, and when he gives her a rose while the great Caruso soothes the anxious detainees with his warm tenor, the operatic overtones take on a meta quality. Renner’s lean physique and short-twitch muscularity perfectly play against the heavy, sinking quality of Phoenix – the former floats above, while the latter broods below. Orlando performs with the high artists of opera; Bruno hawks his wares in low-brow vaudeville. Renner’s Orlando has the mix of rascally charm and kindly sensitivity of Gene Kelly, and he urges Ewa to keep her belief in the American dream alive. This is the most imaginative work Renner’s done.

In the meantime, though, Ewa nobly suffers the indignities of her fate, performing as an erotic Lady Liberty in the Bandit’s Roost vaudeville hall and servicing Bruno’s clients in his apartment. That Gray has Ewa embody the Statue of his opening image in both parody and affirmation is telling. I’ve written before for these pages on the Madonna-whore dichotomy at work in O’Neill, which he inherited from melodrama. Here, Gray works off that same typology, but plays with it – he never makes Ewa tawdry, though the men around her do. Almost the opposite, in fact: She’s breathtakingly beautiful lying in bed as her John departs, a radiance kept in check when she’s a “pure” peasant. The movie both empathizes with her point of view (her self-loathing makes the sufferings clear) yet never trashes her for it, or any of her sisterly performers. And though she’s innocent, she’s not stupidly naive: She’s escaped war-ravaged Poland, after all, and sleeps with a blade the first night in Bruno’s flat. In this manner, Gray rebuilds the American mythology of the immigrant even as he undercuts it. He doesn’t belabor or overdue the point about the American dream and Lady Liberty – he's no hack. Rather, the cinematography, structure, and operatic elements make you feel as if you’re watching La boheme. Gray elongates the basic melodramatic plot points, as the opera does, to romanticize the downtrodden while shedding new light on their plight.

The director structures the story as a conflict between Orlando and Bruno, and you expect the former to work the kind of magical solution for Ewa that he does for himself when straight-jacketed onstage. But the script takes an unexpected turn into a narrative climax that stumbles with flat-footed staging. The central action lacks convincing motivation and its meaning gets muddled. Gray loses control of the tone momentarily; the characters’ attitude toward what’s happened eludes you, leaving you unclear how to read it all. The film feels almost underwritten at times and this moment becomes the most glaring example. It’s as if Gray and Morcello, after setting you up for it, couldn’t conceive a deus ex machina both magical and plausible. There are a couple of other miscues. The script breaks down again later when Ewa returns to her relatives to beg for the money to free Magda, which actually just begs the questions of why she didn’t do so earlier, whether they’d really have the necessary sum on hand, and how the raging in-law husband wouldn’t find out. Earlier, Gray includes a dream scene of Ewa back in Poland that adopts a totally different style – surrealism matched with bleached-white visuals. It’s a disjunctive moment, but what’s more strange is that Gray never returns to it, either stylistically or conceptually – Ewa never seems affected by what is essentially a post-traumatic flashback.

 Marion Cotillard as Ewa, in The Immigrant
The tale instead becomes one of spiritual redemption for both her and Bruno. The script doesn’t provide narrative justification for Bruno’s religious kind. He suffers, certainly, but in a merely physical way, getting brutalized by the police in a mesmerizing image of spotlight silhouettes flashing against a darkened tunnel. But the quality of the performances overshadows any screenplay deficiencies. Bruno may not deserve Ewa’s forgiveness by his actions, but Phoenix is so convincing that he earns it for the man emotionally. It’s with Gray, after all, that the actor’s turned in two of his three great roles (the third being Johnny Cash in Walk the Line) – as the aforementioned Leonard and as Bobby Green in We Own the Night. Once again, he excels as a maladjusted, brooding figure both sensitive and troubled. He communicates Bruno’s unspoken complexities, a deep psychic conflict tearing him up. His distorted desire for Ewa makes him give her only the most respectful clients, and it makes him simultaneously pathetic and sympathetic: He’s incapable of romancing her like Orlando, and he knows it. He’s off, somehow, affected and broken. His body’s certainly broken at film’s end, and here Phoenix channels Brando’s Terry Malloy, only to invert the image: Spitting his words out like so many shattered teeth, his jaw ballooned out like a boxer’s, Bruno makes a final confession of sins against Ewa that’s steeped in self-recrimination. Phoenix murmurs along splendidly throughout the movie, but this last scene is a spontaneous piece of method acting on par with his turn as Green.

His method intensity is the perfect foil for Marion Cotillard, who takes a more classical style of being photographed. But as he does with Bruno, her emotional identification with Ewa – and iridescent, captivating face – fills in what the script lets go unsaid. If the film bears comparison to Broken Blossoms, Cotillard must be animated by the spirit of Lilian Gish. The performance centers on her face, one of the most sublime in cinema right now. Given the ample silence and sparse dialogue, she has to render subtle emotional shifts on her profile the way the great silent actresses do. Here is that tragic heroine: Ennobled by suffering, mysterious below the surface, delicate, strong, and humane.

But a different such actress than Gish came to mind as I watched. Though the narrative climax occurs with Bruno and Emil, the film’s emotional climax comes later, and it’s all Cotillard. During Candlemas at a soaring Gothic cathedral, Ewa falls to her knees in prayer as the priest intones in Latin. With her liquid eyes transfixed on the sanctuary, Cotillard discharges pleas to the Blessed Mother with aching desperation. In that moment, as Gray frames her face and upward turned eyes, you can’t help but see Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc – perhaps the most devotional and revelatory performance of faith put onscreen. It’s not that Ewa’s religious strength takes you by surprise – earlier we see a crucifix process past her cell at Ellis Island, and she wears a medallion of the Virgin on her neck. But the utter abandon with which Ewa gives herself over to prayer overpowers you. Cotillard is the cause, in a spiritual incarnation that continues into the confessional. Her emotional responses are entirely self-originated, and so honest you sense a divine origin beneath it. At one point in the film, Ewa insists that she’s not nothing. At the end, she tells Bruno he’s not nothing either. It’s hard to stomach the forgiveness she grants, given what he’s done. But Gray makes clear that it’s never easy for her. This grace is costly, not the cheap variety that movies (and, for that matter, contemporary Christianity) so often impart. Nothing is cheap about The Immigrant, and Marion Cotillard is its chief grace.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautifull & stunning cinematography! Great performances, Marion was terrific, Joacquin was great but not his best imho , Jeremy was excellent , as always! His character Emil/Orlando was the real bad guy imho.. His actions triggered Bruno to do what he did & that was Orlando's intention! Loved this movie , Grea Great cinema!
    btw- don't agree with "most imaginative work" from Renner; check out Dahmer & esp. Neo Ned !!
    But the film belonged to Marion! Great actress .