By Alex Greenberger
WSN’s coverage of the New York Film Festival continues this year with reviews of some of the festival’s hottest films. This is the sixth entry in a series of reviews. To read more coverage of the festival’s 51st edition, click here.
From the very first shot of “The Immigrant,” it’s clear that James Gray is presenting an alternate history of America — one that’s about poor immigrants after the first World War rather than the “Boardwalk Empire” crowd. Instead of getting a triumphal shot of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, we get her Lady Liberty’s backside from the point-of-view of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who has arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister, Magda. Nothing about Ewa is established in the first shot, but we know her story isn’t going to be pretty — the Statue of Liberty appears bathed in shades of yellow to already suggest malaise. This is going to be a story of how the other half lives.
In other words, Gray is telling a story not of my ancestors or yours, but rather, a story of the people that were written out of history — the people like Ewa, who unfortunately became forced into prostitution by city slickers like Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). And in every way, this is a story that absolutely needed to be told.
Gray is a magnificent storyteller as well. Though much of “The Immigrant” is spent distancing the viewer from the characters, it’s hard not to become absorbed in the increasingly depressing story of Ewa. And Gray truly does show inspiration from the best melodramatic storytellers in that respect. Gray himself has cited Giacomo Puccini’s opera cycle “Il Trittico” as his main influence, and his emphasis on visuals recalls the films of Douglas Sirk.
But “The Immigrant” doesn’t have a traditionally structured story. A lot of “The Immigrant” meanders, though this is precisely what it means to do. It means to show Ewa’s dramatic struggles in a naturalistic way, and it does so with grace.
Of course, Gray’s storytelling has made for a troublesome viewing experience for a lot of viewers. In fact, you can just about expect the rumors of Harvey Weinstein cutting the film for its released to be confirmed as truth within the upcoming months. But should the film be released in its two-hour cut, it is worth sticking out the admittedly long runtime for its explosive final act. After two extremely subtle, quiet acts, the film sneaks up on its viewer, producing what may be the best performances of Cotillard and Phoenix’s careers to date.
Naturally, sad monologues, swelling musical cues, and tears abound in the final third, because “The Immigrant” is, at its heart, an old-fashioned melodrama. Were this made by any other filmmaker, it might not have worked, but Gray is such a talented director that he succeeds in not only forcing its audience members to yank out a Kleenex or two, but also in revitalizing a genre that’s gone out of style. “The Immigrant” is about as old-timey as it gets; to have a tale as melodramatic as this work in the present day is extraordinary.
Gray’s visuals, marvelously photographed by Darius Khondji, are perhaps his greatest tool in achieving such a strong story. “The Immigrant” is such a visually stunning film I wished the sound were turned all the way down at times. There are few directors whose films say everything using visuals, and there are even fewer who can do that unpretentiously. Gray’s style, though meaningful and esoteric in the best ways, is thankfully about as unpretentious as great filmmaking gets.
It just about goes without saying that Gray is also a great actor’s director. As if the visuals were not enough, Cotillard and Phoenix’s performances also tell the story with immense power. Even Jeremy Renner — who plays Orlando, a magician who gets mixed up in Ewa and Bruno’s work relationship — gives a minor yet layered performance.
“The Immigrant’s” final 20 minutes are its greatest stretch, and it’s all possibly thanks to its final shot, which certainly joins the ranks of the 15-minute opening shot of “Gravity” as one of the most technically amazing shots of the year. It’s a shot that tells the whole story in just one image, without any score or performances — it simply speaks on its own terms. Like the whole of the film, it’s subtle, gorgeous, sad, and extraordinarily cathartic. Rarely ever does all that merge in a film, let alone a single shot, anymore. And you can thank James Gray for being one of the few directors who still understands how to do that.
Alex Greenberger is film editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.