In 2014, any filmmaker who has a feel, and a flair, for romantic melodrama is doomed, and just one recent example from the world of blockbusters suggests why: In the final moments of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the hero tragically fails to save a major character, but the moment, coming after endless green-screen shots of villains being zapped with spider silk, has zero weight. A plot point that should pierce us is just a mechanical motivation for the lead character to slip into a funk and to decree sulkily — for, it seems, the millionth time — that he doesn’t want to be Spider-Man anymore. And so a potentially operatic gesture becomes an expensive shrug. In a world like this, what chance does a period melodrama like James Gray’s The Immigrant have?
To Gray, the director of unapologetically impassioned dramas like We Own the Night and Two Lovers, the shrug is a foreign gesture. He’s unafraid of strong emotion; he doesn’t care about looking cool. And with The Immigrant, in which Marion Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant struggling to find her place in New York in the early 1920s, he’s made a picture that feels classical but also breathes. There’s no other movie on the landscape like it, which is perhaps why the Weinstein Co. has relegated it to a very small limited release: In today’s movie-marketing climate, The Immigrant probably has too much feeling for its own good. But anyone who cares about movies, and about what movies can be, should try to see it on the big screen. It’s as if the ghosts of an older, vanished New York have been freed from the tyranny of faded photographs and allowed, once again, to move, think, and feel.
Cotillard’s Ewa has just made the crossing to the United States with her sickly sister, who’s whisked away by the authorities upon arrival and detained indefinitely in an Ellis Island hospital. Ewa almost doesn’t make it into the country herself: An immigration bureaucrat, having heard reports of her “low morals” aboard the ship, informs her that women of her ilk aren’t welcome here. Just then, like a knight in a bowler and a celluloid collar, Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno steps in: He gives Ewa a place to stay and hints at possible employment. It turns out Bruno runs a cabaret/brothel, and with half-courtly, half-cagey seductiveness, he persuades Ewa that the surest way for her to earn the money to free her sister is to join his bevy of salacious beauties. Ewa, of course, stands out in that crowd. Her face — Cotillard’s face — is determined and refined, even after her virtue has been sullied; her radiance is intertwined with her dignity. Bruno tries to possess her, but it’s his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her. None of the characters here read as precisely good or bad, conniving or kind; scoundrels can have noble hearts, and purity isn’t the same as innocence.
Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes into an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. He does nothing by half-measures, which is one of the chief complaints filed by those who don’t care for his movies, that everything he does is just too much. But the too-muchness is the point. Shot by Darius Khondji, partly on location on Ellis Island, The Immigrant is quietly glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light. Gray and Khondji don’t glamorize Ewa’s situation or her living conditions, but they make them movie-beautiful, believable in a way that pleases the eye; the result is a kind of stylized neo-realism. When Bruno invites Ewa to stay in a mysterious little flat, offering her a day bed and a blanket, she slips a sharp weapon under her pillow, just in case.
Emotions run high in The Immigrant, but they’re tucked into cramped interiors. There are always too many people sharing too-small quarters, with not enough of anything to go around. When Bruno, kicked out of his club and his home, leads his beauties to a dank underpass in Central Park, he dresses them up in cheap silky robes and shiny headdresses from a theatrical costume trunk, mischievously passing them off to potential clients as daughters of New York aristocracy. They strut and preen in their tattered Art Deco finery, but the point isn’t to make us feel sorry for these young women in compromised circumstances; the movie allows them their self-respect, assigning some tawdry glamour to the art of just scraping by.
If The Immigrant were being released in 1934 instead of 2014, and I were writing the text for its advertising poster, I’d go with “A woman who will do anything to survive. A man transformed by love.” That about sums it up, in the barest terms, but Gray (who co-wrote the script with the late Ric Menello, also the co-writer of Two Lovers) adds so many gossamer layers to that framework that it defies cliché. The picture might be considered an ode to the way movies used to be, not just in terms of look and style but in the way they’d unfold before us, unashamed of teasing out deep, raw feeling, and the actors are game. Phoenix, always a bit of an eccentric, modulates his quirks here, as if in deference to the story and its nuances — he has a nightshade intensity, and the obsessive, twisted love he comes to feel for Ewa is believable in its confused complexity. Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul.
Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. The new world Ewa has entered is hardly welcoming, but she strides into it with an explorer’s spirit. Late in the film, trying to reconcile herself with all the unspeakable things she’s done in order to help her sister, she wraps herself in a shawl and enters a Catholic church. “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” she asks the priest to whom she confesses. This isn’t modern-day speech but proud, defiant movie dialogue, a distinct language that some may laugh at but that others will understand instinctively. Lines like these are like mutable vessels, changing shape and color depending on what the actor pours into them. Into this one Cotillard pours despair, anxiety, and more than a few drops of defiance. As a newcomer and a woman of little means, Ewa is at a disadvantage in this busy, indifferent world. The naked honesty of her face only makes everyone want to lie to her. But that doesn’t make her the liar, and her fearlessness in the face of thieves and tricksters makes all the difference. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you’re not wanted into one you can call home.