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The Immigrant

The Immigrant

Writer-director James Gray makes consistently intriguing,
provocative films like We Own the Night and Two Lovers. The Immigrant is no
exception; it  may be flawed, but it’s
also strangely compelling. Some of the vignettes in this episodic tale may seem
outlandish, but most of them are derived from Gray’s family lore.

Marion Cotillard gives a bravura performance as a Polish
immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sickly sister. She falls
prey to a smooth operator, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who’s always on the
lookout for naïve newcomers. He offers to help and protect her, which he does, even
while exploiting her as a prostitute. (She reluctantly agrees to sell her body
in order to help her sister.) Therein lies the complex relationship at the core
of the movie: he doesn’t see himself as a pimp, harboring grander ideas about
his role in rough-and-tumble New York City. Matters are complicated by the
arrival of a slick, two-bit entertainer (Jeremy Renner) who has an unfortunate
history with Phoenix and an eye for Cotillard.

One of The Immigrant’s
primary assets is its texture: a rich fabric of sights and sounds that evoke
the look and feel of New York’s underbelly in the early 20th
century. From the opening scenes in the Great Hall at Ellis Island to
subsequent chapters in boarding houses and makeshift theaters, the movie feels
authentic. You can almost smell the pungent aromas.

The melodramatic connection of the three main characters is
more difficult to embrace. Gray has a passion for opera that is obvious in all
his work; he even manages to incorporate a performance by Enrico Caruso (that
actually took place) in this narrative. But the outsized emotions of opera
don’t easily translate to the intimacy of film, and that creates some awkward,
off-putting moments.

Through it all, Cotillard shines like the
diamond-in-the-rough she portrays, even delivering some of her dialogue in
Polish. Every nuance of her character’s makeup is conveyed on her expressive
face. In his fourth collaboration with filmmaker Gray, Phoenix delivers a bold
performance, although his character (and his motivations) remain hazy at best.

The Immigrant is a
remarkable-looking picture, thanks to Gray’s vision and the work of
cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Happy Massee, and costume
designer Patricia Norris. It may not be a perfect film, but I’m awfully glad I
saw it.

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