Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Immigrant - C'est Si Bon, But Not THAT Bon

James Grey's The Immigrant is a slow, sweeping story about Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish woman who comes to America with her younger sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Their quest to find safety and stability in the USA becomes a nightmarish ordeal because luck, avarice, jealousy, pride, and corruption conspire to drag them down a brutal and cruel path.

As Ewa and Magda wait in line at Ellis Island, the former admonishes the latter to hide her cough; tuberculosis symptoms get people detained to be observed, then deported. Ewa knows English well, yet sinks into quicksand once a doctor comes by and races through the inspection. In seconds, Magda is declared suspect and confined to the island. Her medical treatment won't be free, either.

Things don't fare better for our protagonist. Her questions about her sister are barely answered. Bureaucrats say that the Aunt and Uncle who were to sponsor them are absent, with a home address that doesn't exist. Finally, Ewa's told that the men on her boat accused her of "low moral character" (read: slut or prostitute, almost interchangeable back then (F-K you, patriarchy)). Those last two reasons together are fatal, and the older sister learns she will be sent back to Poland shortly.

In a long hallway, Ewa waits. A man approaches her, and they speak quickly. She’s plaintive, while he’s hesitant. After a few tense moments, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) says that she's bound to be sent back, but he could take her off the island. This chance rescue then turns into an offer of a place to sleep, in addition to employment as a seamstress. Bruno lays out the idea that Ewa needs money to feed her sister, as well as secure her eventual release.

And so, Ewa takes something like a Dante’s journey through the 9 Levels of NYC. She’s occasionally joined by the light-hearted – and pretty foolish – stage magician, Emil (Jeremy Renner), but almost her whole existence Stateside is overshadowed by Bruno, who’s so studiously abusive that I took him for a proto-Ike Turner.

So the real question is: why is this movie so highly regarded as to be at the top of many best of 2014 lists?

Well, The Immigrant has to be among the most beautifully-shot pictures of 2014 – I haven’t seen everything that came out last year, but it must be in the top 10, if not the top 5. God, just look at that perfect closing image again! This picture serves as a master class in the most effective use of angles, movement, and cuts, colors, composition and framing, and the way that shots play off of each other. This fact, and the sheer quality of the performances, are what have so many critics and amateur viewers placing the film in the upper echelon of their best of 2014 lists.

And that fact, in turn, is weird to me, because the lead characters have a lot of interesting qualities – enough that they are very much worth paying attention to – even though the plots and overall story... aren’t exactly astounding. For all their engaging traits, or characteristics that can make the roles seem so much more human/memorable, the characters themselves seem to be following the storyline about as dynamically and spontaneously as a Swiss train rides on its tracks. The things that happen here happen because they’re going to happen; and a woman’s life being turned to hell because she’s too pretty is something the audience has seen before.
To people who obsess over character, it's a mixed blessing. Cotillard gets to play a distraught woman who is smart enough to suspect a man's excessive generosity almost immediately. She's never painted as a fool, despite being innocent. She’s desperate, but never gives in to panic like a weakling would. And her faith is one of her biggest strengths – but even beyond the determination to save her family, the faith in her religion sort of initiates her salvation. That’s a very engaging set of attributes for a lead.

The horrible things forced on Ewa (most of them) are less a matter of her losing control than they are a terrible choice that has her actively selecting the lesser evil. This puts her far above many female protagonists who are often aimless, flat-out overtly victimized, or whose misfortune is shown as the result of some moment of weakness (like being too charitable or failing to be cautious). But I can’t give this compliment without also remembering that most of this story involves Ewa’s beauty being turned against her because lots of dudes are pigs and she’s quite lovely; also, the worst assault is beyond her control, it just happened before the story started.

Bruno is a needy scumbag, but he's clearly also a victim of his own emotions (let's face it, many dangerous psychopaths and unfortunate mentally ill people are). And he has a moment of clarity, as well as a moment of grace. The man is a villain through and through, but his actions – which might have come off stronger if he never explained them, a major script oversight – show that a glimmer of hope exists in even a disgustingly manipulative conman who pushes people into hurtful situations and then whines about his own feelings.

And Emil? Well, he's a confusing figure. It's partly because he's frequently absent from the narrative, and it's partly due to my distraction because I've never seen Jeremy Renner play anyone with charisma. It's insane to see this actor, who can always be summed up by the word "stoic," turn into a light-hearted dreamer and charming romantic. Maybe my shock leaves me unable to judge his performance...
No matter what, though, I saw these three main figures too often going through the scenes with the same intent or content - in a "the writer is unimaginative/too direct" way, not in a "the writer is making a point well" way. For people who want a story of struggle and strength, then, The Immigrant must seem great - especially since the conflicts people experience are made very clear in this film. And the Acadamy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must love it, because it involves a wh-re with a good heart who’s raped (thanks, Academy, you aholes). However, for people who want something with a little more meat and lack of predictability... disappointment or just feeling a bit “meh” or unimpressed is the likely result. I have to assume that's how the audience will split on this picture.

What makes it so easy for me to pick apart the movie? There’s little signs all around. A lot of the dialogue is people announcing their emotions/intentions/motivations, bad opera-style; I’m not a fan. Worse, I’ve seen Sarafyan act before, and she’s good. It would be nice to see this young actress tackle a pivotal role in a rich period piece. But the sister – y’know, the protagonist’s entire motivation here – barely has five minutes in this picture. And while the role’s absence is played to strong effect, she isn’t developed beforehand. So she’s just… there? They just cast her because she’s pretty and looks sooooo Eastern European?

So once I noticed that, I realized how I’d describe the group of players in this tale. You end up with a work wherein two, maybe three, people are real characters (no, two, since Emil is more plot catalyst than man), one is a blank ghost, and the rest are minimal roles that are easy to categorize, and easy to forget or gloss over. Usually, for me, that kind of construction and management of roles doesn’t lend itself to wonderful cinema. There’s better scripting and character in any random Humphrey Bogart film noir.

Worst of all, you could say that it wastes two opportunities. For one thing, the movie would’ve been more suspenseful if it kept the scenes and roles more ambiguous. SPOILERS SKIP THIS AND THE NEXT PARAGRAPH I knew immediately that Bruno got Ewa screwed at Ellis Island, that he was a heartless pimp, and that he was domineering. How much better would it have been if I only learned these things toward the back half of the movie? My jaw would’ve dropped, and I’d’ve felt some weird emotion-thingy about Bruno...

The other missed shot is a bigger shame: The Immigrant makes no actual statement about abuse, at least not that I can discern. It shows abuse: abuse of power, abuse of law, abuse of corruption, societal abuse, sexist abuse, racial/ethnic abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse; I probably missed a few.

So why did it depict so much and yet say so little about it? I can’t believe the artist’s thesis here is “sometimes that guy who totally abused you physically and emotionally and pimped you out will be actually semi-honorable and in love with you and after a moment of clarity will pull his s—t together long enough to set you free and give you what you deserve.” Seems a bit too specific, y’know?

And we get “the story of Ewa comes to America and gets abused ALL THE TIME OMG” instead of really ruminating on the self-destructiveness of abuse (how Bruno can’t thrive), the senselessness of it (why does Bruno hate Emil), and the ugly reality that bigtime abusive folks can still have nauseating-to-hear “feelings” about their victims (drink Clorox, Bruno – invent and then drink it). But Bruno is in the story so much that it takes away from being all about Ewa. Also, Emil isn’t around long enough, and the rest of the cast receives too little time/fresh writing to make this into an ensemble piece.

Which is all a shame. Few period films feel so nicely-rooted in the look and sensibility of their time periods. The visual element of the movie is superlative. The sets are f—king amazing. And the actors live out this flawed story in an engaging and impressive way. So many exceptional elements here...

If only there were more going on. The Immigrant isn’t bad at all, and I can completely understand why people like it. In fact, I like it – but just a bit, and I’m influenced by the fact that it’s portraying my hometown. Yet it’s not an amazing movie, and no degree of visual excellence will convince me otherwise when it’s so easy to pick at this story and these characters. I don't think that a clear "message" or "point" would make the experience better, but I could imagine this movie being stronger if it either abandoned some of the scenes in the middle of the story, or if it were centered more on building the world that Ewa walked into.

I can’t help but think that that world really is discarded once she leaves the dance exhibition hall. Instead, the only thing that seems to be truly built up is the series of intolerable, unearned, and shameful difficulties that Ewa encountered, and that’s not satisfactory enough of an atmosphere or a cause to get me immersed in this movie. Immigrant work better if it were an update of Dante’s Inferno, since that’s sort of what it does anyway. It’s all the weirder to have such writing issues with a technically-amazing period film that made me a photographic afterglow... And next time, give Angela Sarafyan something to do, for Pete’s sake; she may be damn slender, but she can fill out a big role just fine.


  1. This is an amazing write up, far better than this movie deserved! You are so right it has absolutely nothing to say about any of the issues it is portraying. I forgot all about right after it was over and had it have something to say perhaps it wouldn't be the case. I actually think this last shot is overrated. What's the big deal?

    1. Thank you so much, that's high praise! I thought that its high profile in critics' circles merited a real look at both the flaws and strengths of the movie.

      I think the closing shot deserves all the love it's gotten - it's a neat job of "showing" as a way of "telling," and it looks stunning. It is a fine example, imo, of someone actually speaking the language of cinema. As a photographer, I was kinda jealous.

      Or, if you like, just think that other directors would've used narration to close the film, or a text coda. In this case, the filmmakers' choice was delicate and beautifully-accomplished. Hell, such a strong final shot might've been part of why people responded so strongly in the first place...

    2. Yeah for me it was neither stunning nor interesting....maybe it was partly because I completely didn't care about these characters but honestly it didn't even crack my top 15 shots of last year and several movies last year alone had shots that said far more and far more interestingly.

  2. I saw the trailer, then I saw the movie. Now seeing the trailer just after I saw the movie, I can say that this is the best trailer ever!


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