I’m all for careful attention to craft, but The Immigrant has such a burnished, fussy visual design that the movie feels fossilized. I realize the story takes place in the past, but the old-timey aesthetic here is so overwrought the characters seem stuck in prehistoric amber.
All of this is an extremely ungenerous way of saying that The Immigrant is beautiful. In telling the tale of a Polish woman named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) who comes to the United States in 1921 and falls in with a pimp/showman (Joaquin Phoenix), director James Gray and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, emphasize grainy-gray streets, smoky rooms and soft, glowing table lamps. The movie has the haze of history; it’s as if the kerosene from one of those lamps has been rubbed on the camera lens.
But it’s also inert. Scenes drag on and on, as if Gray couldn’t bear to cut away from his impeccable mise en scene. Phoenix, who’s played roguish characters before for Gray in the likes of The Yards and We Own the Night, seems to be particularly affected as Bruno. He reverts to his sleepy mode, mumbling more due to a lack of energy than because it’s a good fit for his character. He jolts to life for one scene – a climactic confession – yet the moment borders on the hysterical, as if Phoenix is trying in one sequence to make up for a movie’s worth of languor.
It’s as if Gray couldn’t bear to cut away from his impeccable mise en scene.
Jeremy Renner tries to bring some vitality to the proceedings as Orlando, a magician who may or may not offer a more promising sort of companionship for Ewa. Yet Renner’s distinctly contemporary demeanor is an ungainly fit. He stands out among the period trappings like a piece of contemporary office furniture.
That lives us with Cotillard, whose wide eyes and moony face certainly project a period look. The key to her performance, though, is the fact that she refuses to play Ewa as an old-fashioned damsel in distress. Even when she’s fearful, there’s a scheming in her eyes. On her first night in Bruno’s apartment, she slips a nearby knife under her pillow before she goes to sleep. She’s a survivor. To its credit, The Immigrant is complicated enough to allow Ewa to be the driver of her story – to make her own choices – while also acknowledging she’s operating within a socioeconomic system in which women had far fewer – and far bleaker – choices than did men.
The Immigrant ends on a bravura final shot that is, without doubt, a master stroke of composition. At the same time, however, it’s also partly emblematic of the movie’s main problem. While admiring the shot’s configuration and wondering how it was achieved, our thoughts drift further and further away from the story being told. Like much of The Immigrant, it’s a piece de resistance in an adverse way – a flourish that overwhelms, rather than enhances, the drama.