The Immigrant served as the opening night film at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival, offering not just a showcase of James Gray’s assured filmmaking but as a reminder of Chicago’s own ethnographic composition. Set in 1920’s Manhattan, The Immigrant may initially come across as another one of Gray’s New York stories, relishing in exposing the divide that comes from different cultural upbringings. In large part, the success of Gray’s previous film, Two Lovers, stems from understanding the nuances of how religion and cultural upbringing can produce equally intimate yet completely different relationships. The Immigrant explicitly develops on Gray’s style, adopting a narrative geared toward the understanding the development of an American melting pot.
The simplicity of The Immigrant’s plotting may strike some viewers as perhaps too classical, though the simple strokes of narrative and visual flourishes are realized through Gray’s own formal command. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is first seen with her sister on Ellis Island following a voyage from Poland. With her tubercular sister detained and Ewa looking to be deported, Bruno (Joaquin Phoneix) with his endless supply of connections, brings Ewa into the states and provides her with room and board under the condition that she work for him. Complexities in their relationship, from Bruno’s abusiveness and Ewa’s pronounced dedication to get her sister into America, provides The Immigrant with ample grimness though never does the picture descend into melodrama. It’s in Gray’s critical eye and obvious adoration for silent pictures, most notably F.W. Murnau’s City Girl that forces him to reassess how he’s presenting the mythic aura of 1920s New York with the grittiness of his material.
The Chicago connection in The Immigrant is one of both personal and historical weight. Provided that Chicago was at one time known for having the largest population of Poles outside of Poland (the claim being that more Poles reside in Chicago than within Warsaw), The Immigrant’s detailed account of a Polish woman’s struggles register as particularly true. With all the associated communal, religious, and social issues that arise throughout Ewa’s stay in New York City, the universal provocations that arise in Gray’s work have never coalesced better than seen in The Immigrant. This all comes to a head by striking a personal note on my upbringing and helping in understanding my own Polish heritage. Gray touches upon the religiosity of all his characters but highlight’s Ewa’s Catholicism as a means of understanding how betrayed she becomes through every facet of her life - betrayed by her community, betrayed by a new social system, and betrayed by the delusion of the American Dream.
Many films this year have dwelled on the concept of the American Dream. There’s been Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring that redefine what that dream means to contemporary culture. Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price studies how those with privileged status will attempt to maintain the status quo of what that dream promised them. But it’s The Immigrant, in spite of its 1920’s narrative backdrop that strikes the most contemporary chord. The simplicity of its narrative allows for this, where Ewa becomes a victim of a system that strips her of agency and personal freedoms. In a film that features a magician (a miscast Jeremy Renner, serving as The Immigrant’s only true err), the grand illusion is the sense that Ewa could ever escape her servitude. Her quest to rescue her sister only allows her to strip away the numbness of living a bitterly grim life. “I want my money”, she tells Bruno after a night of sexual exploits. It’s a line that resonates through the ages.