The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

A MacGuffin of a Melodrama: James Gray’s The Immigrant

Written by: Drew Morton, Special to CC2K

Black Maria co-founder and chief film critic Drew Morton, reviews director James Gray’s latest film, The Immigrant. 

I spent May of 2013 in Paris, shacking up in a friend’s apartment near the Bastille while he was at the Cannes Film Festival.  I had been fetishizing such a Parisian vacation for almost a decade, after falling hopelessly in love with French cinema and culture thanks to many of the New Wave filmmakers (Godard, Truffaut, et al.) who began as critics for Cahiers du Cinéma.  I spent my days re-tracing the steps of my favorite film characters in Breathless (1960), eating at the café from Amélie (2001), visiting the grave sites of the French auteurs at Montparnasse and Montmartre, and checking out the beloved Cinémathèque.  When my friend – fellow Black Maria contributor Ben Sampson -returned from Cannes, we discussed the many films he had seen and our talks occasionally honed in on James Gray – an American director who seems largely overlooked here and yet beloved by the French.  In fact, Gray is such an outlier case in this regard that Variety spilled a good deal of ink on it.  

In a Variety interview, Gray states “At the risk of sounding self-serving, if you had to choose a group of people you would hope would respond to your films, you’d choose the French. Throughout history, they have always been ahead of the curve in praising American directors.”  While the director is somewhat correct (the Cahiers crowd did aid the cultural reassessment of several auteurs), Gray also seems to romanticize the French critics’ contributions to auteur theory.  After all, the same crowd that trumpeted the virtues of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles bashed Henri-Georges Clouzot and– as Ben noted –lauded Jerry Lewis.  I would argue that placing James Gray into the Pantheon of Directors (to borrow from Andrew Sarris) is a form of critical grade inflation.  He isn’t a bad director; he’s merely a good director.

Allow me to begin this long-winded review of Gray’s latest film, The Immigrant (2014), with a brief disclaimer.  I haven’t seen all of Gray’s films, so it’s possible that I’ve missed a diamond in the rough.  To be more specific, I’ve seen The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007) but I’ve missed out on his debut Little Odessa (1994) and his third collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers (2008).  Speaking of the former two films, I can say that particular scenes (the car chase through the rain in We Own the Night) and performances (Phoenix is almost always noteworthy in their collaborations) are memorable.  However, on a holistic level, Gray’s films are often equally ambitious and mediocre.  To exponentially expand the praise for a performance or a chase sequence in a Gray film is akin to praising an entire album on the basis of its lead single.  Quite simply, the ambition and potential contained within the smaller units of Gray’s films do not sustain their potency; they dilute like a glass of single malt scotch holding too many ice cubes.

The Immigrant is no exception.  The film will feel incredibly familiar to cinephiles, as it cribs many of its beats from the melodramatic woman’s films of the 30s and 40s and those films that deal with the disillusion of an immigrant whose idealized American dream is shattered by a corrupt system (The Godfather Part II and even the animated film An American Tail).  When doe-eyed Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda arrive on Ellis Island, they clutch one another and swear – in Polish – that they will not allow themselves to be separated.  The moment Magda starts to cough, we can see where this is going.  The two women are separated and Ewa finds herself working as a showgirl and occasional prostitute for the stormy Bruno (Phoenix) so that she can pay for Magda’s medical treatment.

Thankfully, the film begins by placing Ewa in a position of power.  Granted, Bruno is taking advantage of her situation, but Ewa repeatedly asserts her own terms, a proactivity that is repeatedly contrasted to the demeanor of other women in Bruno’s flock.  I’m not going to argue that Ewa is Wonder Woman, but she’s an active character in a genre that often victimizes women.  Ewa seeks out a proper lover in the form of Bruno’s cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner).  And while she is filled with shame at the life she has been forced to lead – asking if it is a sin to do anything to survive – she is repeatedly pragmatic and exhibits a strong will…even when her life is threatened after a murder.  Unfortunately, the film undermines her characterization in the film’s final scenes when she basically needs a man’s permission to take the next step of her journey.  The transformation is so jarring that it leads to a case of ideological whiplash.

Not only is the film problematic in its sexual politics, it is also problematic from an emotional standpoint.  Ewa’s psychological motor is obviously Magda.  She lives simply to get her sister out of quarantine at Ellis Island.  However, the film barely establishes Magda as a character.  We see the two of them in the first scene together, grasping one another close and making promises that they will not leave one another on the verge of discovering a better life in America but that’s really all we’re given.  Occasionally, Ewa alludes to the fact that Magda saved her life, yet the implications are never emotionally paid off (in fact, Gray places a very poetic flashback/dream sequence in the film, but he never carries the device forward).   Thus, Magda becomes the personified version of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin; an empty, meaningless device that solely exists to carry the plot forward.

Finally, much of The Immigrant‘s style is ripped off from better films.  The beautiful sepia-toned cinematography by Darius Khondji is an overt homage to Gordon Willis’s work on The Godfather Part II (1974).  Moreover, the film’s attention to the detail of New York lower-class leisure life in the 1920s (stage shows, burlesque acts) owes much to Coppola’s film and to other cinematic period pieces with the stage at their center.  In the end, The Immigrant doesn’t bring any new insights or unique poetics to this type of melodrama.  Even if viewed strictly from the standpoint of being an “actors’ film,” Cotillard and Phoenix have a very narrow spectrum to work with (the former is stuck between depressed loss/hope and empowered loss/hope, the latter is stuck between a facade of good nature and a bubbling rage).  To be fair to Gray, most of the problems with the film seem to stem from the screenplay (which he co-wrote with Ric Menello) and not from his technical execution.  However, in the eyes of the auteurists– the French critics and Andrew Sarris – technical expertise merely makes someone a technician, not an auteur.  Unfortunately, the French can’t be an accurate cultural barometer every time.

This essay was originally published at The Black Maria.