Cannes Review: 'The Immigrant'

Life would be a lot easier if everyone we encountered were clearly and rigidly defined as good or evil. The unfortunate truth is there exists a porous border between the two states, with good people doing bad things all the time. Not just that, but folks you are ready to dismiss from your life for past deeds can some times pull through and act as a savior. It is in this interzone where James Gray sets his newest and possibly best film "The Immigrant."

It's clear as early as the opening titles (which use a font strikingly similar to Barbra Streisand's "Yentl") that this movie isn't just about a different time (the 1920s) but it is meant to evoke the perception of that era from the vantage point of the late 1970s/early 1980s - a double trip through time usually reserved for genre films (e.g. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.") The lamp-lit, grainy sepia look of "The Immigrant" calls to mind everything from "The Godfather Part II" to "Hester Street" to certain scenes from "Reds" to the original dustcover printing of Irving Howe's "World of our Fathers," the ubiquitous (unread) text of every first-generation American's basement from my youth.

Ewa Cybulski's story of how she got to America is just like everyone else's - in that it is completely unique. She arrived at Ellis Island with no money, the address of a relative and a sister sick with tuberculosis. Among her other unique qualities: she's played by Marion Cotillard and even beneath paupers' rags she exudes beauty. When the immigration guard notes that she was marked as a "woman of ill character" during the passage (and there's no one to pick her up) it's enough of a red flag to deport her back to Poland.

Luckily, or unluckily, or both, I suppose, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) is there to witness the whole thing. With a few greased palms he's able to ferry her across to the Lower East Side, a warm bed and, soon enough, a job at his "theater."

Weiss is an immigrant, too, but he has no accent. His theater has some song and magic acts, but the real draw (in addition to Prohibition-era liquor) are the peep-show glimpses of topless girls. Weiss' collection of un-drugged, seemingly consenting performers either have American or Eastern European accents, but the goofy show he's created for them present them as beauties from around the world. Some cheap makeup (and humiliating stage banter) transforms them into Ladies of Spain or Geishas of the Orient - with beautiful Ewa concluding as Lady Liberty herself.

Yes, the metaphor may as well club you over the head with a raised torch, but luckily James Gray keeps the histrionics to an absolute minimum. Ewa knows one thing - she's no fool. She needs money to sneak her sister out of Ellis Island's infirmary and when the dancing segues into full-on prostitution she makes no excuses for herself and accepts it.

Change comes when Bruno's cousin Emile (Jeremy Renner), a performer by the name of the Great Orlando, enters the picture. He has his eye on Ewa, wants to help her, and this sends Bruno into a protective rage. Joaquin Phoenix is in full, unpredictable mode here. His tough guy exterior is wafer thin, and his timorous, high voice belies the insecurity of an inexperienced villain.

Ewa makes for a fascinating, unconventional victim. Her circumstances are horrible, but she owns her transgressions. A scene in a gorgeously lit confessional is among the standouts of Cotillard's career. But even these moments of high drama are filmed in a somewhat reserved manner. For a film about sexual exploitation there is very little nudity. It's as if this is the mirror universe version of fellow Cannes Film Festival 2013 alum "Young and Beautiful." That film, sex positive and dripping in pheromones, is a hell of a long way from Gray's world where even the johns seem to find intimate congress an act of necessary drudgery. Both films address that the world is different for women blessed/cursed with great beauty, but the conclusions they draw are quite the opposite.

"The Immigrant" is a deliberately paced picture with few scenes of explosive action. It won me over with its detail (Bruno's apartment is a replica of one you'll find in New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum) and its realism. You sit in the audience and think, yep, this kind of stuff really happened - maybe even to someone in my family. Even those unimpressed with the film (and there have already been many) will be forced to admit its final scenes and sublimely framed last, lingering shot are extraordinary. For my money this is the best film of its kind since Elia Kazan's "America, America," and a reminder of the hardships immigrants went through and continue to go through to this day.

SCORE: 8.0  / 10