Movie Review: The Immigrant (2013)
I think of the word “traduced” when I think of this movie. As in: Someone must have traduced Ewa C., for without having done anything wrong she found herself in America one fine morning.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulska, a Polish immigrant arriving in America in 1921 with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is suffering from tuberculosis and thus taken out of line at Ellis Island and placed into quarantine. She disappears into the bowels of an uncaring, faceless bureaucracy. Ewa, meanwhile, is traduced: declared a woman of low morals because of a shipboard incident. But she is saved from disappearing into bureaucratic bowels by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who insinuates himself into every situation and exudes ickiness from the get-go. He declares he will vouch for her, does, and off they go into the uncaring bowels of New York City: the lower east side.
Bruno, it turns out (and big surprise), runs a kind of burlesque show. He’s half barker, half pimp, and our concern for Ewa is of a traditional nature: Will she be forced into prostitution? What of her virtue? Oh, what of it? My concern for the movie, meanwhile, was graver: Would this just be a sad, downward-trajectory film or would it veer in unexpected directions? Could it retain our interest and still feel true?
The good news is it’s not simply a downward-trajectory film. Ewa isn’t just a victim and Bruno isn’t just a victimizer; but the prostitution thing still happens. Off camera, mostly.
Unraveled, Ewa’s story is a sad one:
- Her parents were killed during the Great War.
- On the ship to America, she is raped, which is why she is declared “a woman of low morals.”
- Her uncle, who is supposed to meet her at the dock, abandons her when he discovers her new, traduced reputation. When she finds her way to his and his wife’s place in Brooklyn, he hands her over to the cops, who hand her back to Bruno. She’s trapped.
The arrival of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a Houdini wannabe, cousin to Bruno and rival for Ewa’s affections, adds energy and comedy to the story. Ultimately tragedy, too. The cousins fight over her and Emil is killed. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom, Ewa immediately becomes a suspect in his murder. It was Emil’s knife, they had been seen fighting publicly, yet somehow she is suspect. She could wind up in prison. Or worse.
It’s almost the Perils of Ewa. We’re just missing the traintracks.
Two wrongs, two rights
“The Immigrant” does two things wrong. One is that poster. Look at that thing. Who designed it? How incompetent do you have to be to make Marion Cotillard look both airbrushed and unattractive? You airbrush people to make them look more attractive, but she looks better in any frame of this film than she does in this lifeless thing. (Mouse over for a better version of the poster.)
The second thing the movie does wrong—and I hate to mention this because I’m a fan—is Joaquin Phoenix. He does not seem to be the man he’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be slick but he’s not, a salesman but no, a user of women but how? Instead he gives us his usual, muddled, self-hating Joaquin schtick. This is a character who fended for himself as a kid on the lower east side? Since when?
But the movie also does two things right. First, it cast Marion Cotillard as Ewa. She’s a wonder to watch. She’s not only makes us feel this woman’s vulnerability, her toughness, her dedication to her sister, but she’s beautiful enough that you understand why both men fall in love with her. Yeah, I know: the movies are full of beautiful actresses. But ... Maybe it’s just me. We lust after actresses (Halle Berry, et al.), we get smitten by others (Carey Mulligan, et al.), but she’s the only one that makes my stomach do little flips. I get joy just out of watching her face. You know the line about how you’d pay to hear John Houseman read the phone book? I think I’d pay to watch Marion Cotillard read the phone book.
There’s also the film’s message of forgiveness. Throughout, Ewa is repulsed by Bruno; she despises him. But when she’s wanted for murder (which, of course, he committed), Bruno hides her. The cops beat him and he doesn’t talk. They steal everything he’s saved; ditto. Shortly thereafter, Ewa returns to her aunt’s home to ask for the money to free her sister. She asks this: “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” She says this. It’s like a break in the clouds:
God has sent me to someone so very lost, someone who made my life a sin. And now, this person suffers for me. So I am learning the power of forgiveness.
“The Immigrant” was written and directed by James Gray, who’s made, among others, “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers,” and “The Yards.” Those are gritty, “good effort” movies. They’re trying for something and don’t quite get there. You want to like them more. This is another one.