Mother of Exiles: James Gray’s ‘The Immigrant’

Sudarshan Ramani

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix's hat in The Immigrant

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix’s hat in The Immigrant

For Indians, immigrating to the States is a long investment in VISA applications, work permits and airfare, and a riffling through all the near and distant relatives or friends of relatives we might have in America to save cash on housing. It’s a highly expensive affair and as such restricted for the already middle-class who emigrate for education, money, or to seek flight from Indian society’s conservative nature. As such, the general myth of immigration in American culture that oppressed people from around the world could come to America and start a new life and new identity is something that’s alien to us, obsessed as we are with maintaining roots and links to a real or imagined ethnic identity.

For most of the people around the world, immigrating to the United States of America was the great quest of the 20th Century. A quest lionized in such masterpieces as King Vidor’s An American Romance, where Brian Donlevy’s Hungarian peasant with a few words in English ends up becoming a steel tycoon over fifty years. Elia Kazan’s America America makes this journey a picaresque epic to rival Xenophon’s Anabasis, the story of Kazan’s uncle who braved oppression in Anatolia, life as a dock labourer and the promise of a banal marriage to finally kiss the grounds on the shores of New York.

The definitive image is that of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, where young Vito Andolini is smuggled out of Sicily to America, where a birth register re-baptizes him Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando) after the village where he came from. This defined the immigrant, a man who in America was defined by his roots but who in America became greater than the feudal village he hailed from. The story of immigration so far has essentially been triumphant in tone, an enabling story of American promise for all the considerable ironies, caveats and qualifications put in by the film-makers. They have also, not coincidentally, been exclusively male-centered and heroic. These stories are magnificent triumphs of masculinity and male endurance, stories of the young boy turned American patriarch and founder of a new way of life.

This makes James Gray’s The Immigrant an exception.

Here the immigrant experience is redefined as feminine, with a distinct approach to survival and endurance. The earlier films were celebrations of ruthless will to power, of men who became hardened and cold and reserved in order to survive and make it through. This hardness is visible in Marion Cotillard’s Ewa who urges her sister to reign in her sickliness to pass through the line. But it is tempered by her genuine love and compassion for her sister’s plight, indeed her quest in the film is to rescue her sister and look after her. Ewa’s purity never dies despite becoming a prostitute and burlesque performer. A fact not lost on Bruno who falls in love with her even as he continues to pimp her. This same purity inspires the affection of Bruno’s cousin, Emile (Jeremy Renner) who calls himself Orlando the magician and shows promise of breaking out of the ghetto in which they live in.

Sternberg's The Salvation Hunters

Critics have followed the cue of James Gray in fixating the film as a return to the New Hollywood, not only Coppola but also Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller for its burnished period glow. But to me the film’s depiction of 1910s New York is closer to silent cinema. The opening sections on the boat naturally recall Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant but the strong depiction of poverty brings to mind Josef von Sternberg’s film debut, The Salvation Hunters (pictured above), much of which was shot on location in New York’s ghettos which the film recreates with limited means. Marion Cotillard’s Ewa is not exactly Dietrich or Georgia Hill, but in the scene where she pricks her finger and uses blood as lipstick and slaps her cheeks till they glow like make-up rouge (which leads to Jeremy Renner’s coup de foudre), she suggests the Sternberg theme of hard steel beneath flash and filigree.

The depiction of tenement life and the center of activity in Bandit’s Roost takes us to films made contemporaneously in the year of the film’s setting. 1912 was the year of D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the world’s first gangster film. A madam at the bar which Bruno operates out of complains about the popularity of the motion pictures, which takes away talent from vaudeville performers. The dynamic between the love triangle of Bruno, Ewa and Emile/Orlando is that of Fellini’s La Strada. That dynamic had previously informed Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Joaquin Phoenix’s wide, round figure and hat, in addition to mental illness from time spent in prison makes him an American Franz Biberkopf, a tragic pimp who as Ewa notes, “brings people to sin but suffers on their behalf.”

The Immigrant is Ewa’s story, her awakening and survival in an America that only has room for the tough and ruthless. It’s a world where as a prostitute her clients include husbands, fathers, bankers and rich sons shaking their virginity. She won’t earn enough money as a seamstress to save her sister but “a lot of fucking” she is assured would lead her there. This makes her hate herself and her people, making her cold to her fellow prostitutes who rightly call her out for putting on airs over them. She lapses into Polish to rudely dismiss the complaints made by another streetwalker over her relationship with Bruno and Emile, only for her to reply back in Polish, taking her aback. It is to Gray’s credit that Ewa doesn’t gain a false toughness, rather he and Cotillard locates her resolve in her longing for their meadows back home(shown in a surprising dream sequence, cut with a bold freedom) and her faith in God.

It’s in this final aspect that The Immigrant becomes audacious. Ewa’s identity as a Catholic, her faith in God and yearning for absolution of her sins is contrasted by Bruno’s indifference. Bruno is a Jewish street kid who is always reminded of this by the police (they call him k-ke and beat him and take his money) when he crosses a line. Through these characters, Gray achieves an incredible synthesis between the Catholic and Jewish notion of suffering and forgiveness. Ewa’s wallowing in sin and compassionate nature leads her to forgive and even sympathize with Bruno while the latter has no illusions about himself and does the little good he does with no hope for succor or any possibility of reward. Ewa is an innocent, a madonna even when she is a whore while Bruno’s life is focused on the common Jewish experience of survival, exile and discretion.

Bringing them together allows Gray to redefine America’s immigrant experience as one of compassion, forgiveness and solidarity, a fitting public service in the present crackdown on illegal immigrants in America and also other parts of the world that continue to be hostile to migrants and expatriates. His perspective is feminine rather than masculine, communal rather than individual, which fits the famous poem by the poet Emma Lazarus (who was Jewish and New Yorker like Gray). This poem, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty redefines the New Colossus as “the mother of exiles”, or in the contest of the film, a new Madonna of unconditional love for lost immigrants to the New World. Gray brings home the definition by crude means, where Ewa is dressed up as the star, “Lady Liberty” in Bruno’s burlesque show.

Gray fashions immigration into a myth of communal yearning for Catholic redemption measured against a reality of Jewish suffering and humiliation, which makes The Immigrant a special achievement in recent American cinema.

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