Here’s a film that so successfully appeals to the mind, you forget how glum it is. The Immigrant features Marion Cotillard as Polish woman who arrives in New York 1921, and through unsavory circumstances, must compromise herself by selling her body. Joaquin Phoenix plays a hustler who puts on many hats, but at his most legit, he is a theater manager. At Ellis Island, Cotillard’s sister is thrown into quarantine and she’s about to be deported home until Phoenix steps in, frees her from the authorities and gives her room and board. It’s a nice first impression, one would think, but it gets ugly.
To pay her way, Cotillard is told that she can sew for a living. But those kind of wages are not exactly going to help free her sister from the Ellis Island hospital where she is going to be detained for six months. She needs real money. Once she agrees to be part of a risqué vaudeville show, it leads sordidly to other things, expressly selling her body.
Phoenix doesn’t want to do these things to her, he protests. We spend the entire film wondering if it’s true that he really is in love with her. He says he is in love. He says it often. So often, we suspect it’s a come-on. But what if he is using this woman and yet is so sincere about “protecting” her? Jeremy Renner eventually enters the picture as a magician who will also vie for Cotillard, and he is the blood ties cousin to Phoenix. Both actors are quite believable in this period setting, and believable in their macho pomposity. There will be guns and knives drawn, and the police will get involved. For all this dueling drama between cousins, we never forget to see Cotillard as a victim, especially once we’ve seen her sell her body quite a number of times.
One of the curious pleasures of the movie is to observe how superb Cotillard can be in such a role, and she is, but not in the way I expected her to. About one-third in, I realized how stupid and slow – quite inarticulate and indecisive really – she is about everything that happens to her. She’s slow to process her options (as grim as they are). She is quick to her survival instincts, such as when other prostitutes attempt to swindle earnings from her. But I can’t think of any other way to explain her except to call her a ditz.
Yet it’s part of the movie’s point, I believe. Director James Gray (“Two Lovers”) wants to show us how the world was in the 1920’s, when women conducted themselves on limited options and with an airless sense of knowledge. We think of the hundreds of thousands of other women, just like Cotillard’s cipher, who were sprung into America with a stifled sense of being and a corrupted survival instinct. The film is handsomely shot in antique amber, like the flashback immigrant scenes of “The Godfather Part II,” but it also has a suffocated rot feel that makes New York into its’ own type of rat maze.
Late in the film, Phoenix has a scene under a bridge at Central Park where he’s touting his girls at rich little runaways, and he’s selling one of them as “the daughter of the Vanderbilt family.” It’s a fascinating sleazy scene, and there are many other scenes involving Phoenix or Cotillard corrupting themselves that carry that kind of thought-provoking charge, kind of saying, this is how America steered itself until it got cleaned up. “The Immigrant” captures a certain kind of seediness that belongs specifically to a long ago time and place, and staunchly convinces.
Note: Released a year later, “Brooklyn” became a more successful film with its sunniness and optimism of the immigrant experience (depicting 1952, however). I liked that film a lot more, probably because you know, it’s likeable, and by the fact it’s easier to sit around with the family watching it. Yet “The Immigrant” is a good supplemental film if you want a harder sense of information on the subject of what it was really like coming to America.
120 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / PERIOD FILM / FOOD FOR THOUGHT AFTERNOON
Film Cousins: “The Emigrants” (1972, Sweden); “The Godfather Part II” (1974); “Lilya 4-ever” (2002, Sweden); “Brooklyn” (2015).