Here we are on day 2 of The Girl on Week Blogathon. In case you somehow missed it, this week I'm only discussing films that have a female protagonist. Click the link at the end of this post to find out how you can join in on the fun. In the meantime, let's move on to today's post.
Directed by James Gray.
2014. Rated R, 117 minutes.
Immediately upon arriving on New York's Ellis Island in 1921 from Poland, Ewa (Cotillard) is separated from her sister Magda (Sarafyan) who is sick, and thus, locked away on another part of the island. Due to this, Ewa is also locked up and about to be deported. She manages to enlist the help of Bruno (Phoenix) who used his connections to get her admitted into the country under his care. Unfortunately for her, Bruno just so happens to be a pimp. His stable of girls also performs at a shady nightclub doing some sort of vaudevillian burlesque thing. Mostly, they prance around in various stages of undress as advertisement for that first gig. Ewa trying to earn enough money to get out of that life and reunite with her sister ensues.
The Immigrant is one of those films where anything bad that can happen to our protagonist does. Thankfully, it avoids stacking the odds so high against her that it becomes oppressive to the viewer. It strikes a great balance between hopeful- and hopelessness. As Ewa's world seems to be crumbling around her she always maintains an infectious level of optimism. She believes she is going to get back to her sister no matter what she has to do to make it happen. For her, the hardshipsma and degradation she undergoes at the hands of Bruno are just things to endure to get what she needs. Though she is clearly a victim, she never plays one, at least with Bruno. Marion Cotillard helps all of this bubble to the surface with another magnificent performance in a career filled with them. Her Ewa is vulnerable and exploited, yet bold and determined, not weak. Instead of just feeling sympathy for her, we empathize with her. As she is subjected to various heinous acts, we don't merely feel sorry for her; we understand her.
Eventually, the movie throws in a love triangle as the relationship between Ewa and Bruno grows more and more complicated. Initially falling for her beauty, he comes to realize her strength is something he needs. He does not know how to grow something positive with her. His own instability and weakness prevents this from happening. When someone appears who can create something potentially special with her, it tears him apart. Jaoquin Phoenix gives a typically tortured performance of a self-destructive man struggling to make sense of his world. In large part, his is a world he created with little input from those who reside within it. The women around him simply do whatever he tells them, no questions asked. They view him as sort of a savior since they all come from circumstances similar to Ewa's. When she brings her grit and resolve into his circle, he is unsure how to handle it. He is really bothered by someone else trying to get into her heart.
In this case, that someone else is Emil (Renner), a magician who comes to work in the show where the girls work. He also happens to be Bruno cousin. His presence changes the film several times even though his actual part is relatively small. Jeremy Renner plays the role solidly, but there is a problem with the character. We're not sure we like him. We see that he has a thing for Ewa and that he is a romantic at heart. However, we see that he is as much of an egotist as Bruno, and fairly shady himself. As much as Bruno was in the beginning, Emil is struck by Ewa's beauty. There also seems to be a tiny bit of him that wants her just because she belongs, on some level, to Bruno. The arguments between these two men provide the film with some of its most electrifying moments. Sadly, our reticence toward liking him tempers our emotional response to them.
Along the way, things keep happening, enough to make it clear the film is often aiming for melodrama. It's done well enough that we don't mind. The dialogue is written just to the edge of our breaking point without actually crossing that threshold. Excellent work by Cotillard and Renner keep us thoroughly engrossed without turning us off from what is some unsavory material. In lesser hands, either those who put it on the page or those charged with bringing the words to life, this could have caused a steady stream of eye-rolls as it just become overwhelming to take in all that happens to our heroine. It helps that the film takes some unexpected turns at several key junctures. When we expect to go one way, it takes a sharp turn in the other direction. These aren't so unbelievable that they destroy our suspension of disbelief. They keeps us on our toes when we think we have it all figured out. By the time we get to the end, where we have wound is actually predictable. The route we traveled to get there is occasionally not.