This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Almost a hundred years ago, Charlie Chaplin made a movie called "The Immigrant" (1917) where his Little Tramp character gives a surreptitious kick up the backside to an official who is herding together immigrants on Ellis Island. No such satisfying rebelliousness is allowed for Ewa (Marion Cotillard), the heroine of director James Gray’s fifth film, as she lands with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) on Ellis Island in 1921. Ewa is Polish and Catholic, and her religion gives her the strength and the detachment to meet any and all difficulties. Magda is taken away from Ewa and quarantined for tuberculosis. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a low-rent stage impresario, stealthily watches this lady in distress before making his move and scooping her up. It seems likely that Bruno skulks around Ellis Island a lot waiting for ladies in distress.
Bruno puts Ewa on stage with him, and as she goes through the motions of posing for an audience, he starts to look at her with a confused and intense love that he cannot control or express. Ewa is Bruno’s opposite: she is upright, steady and distant whereas he is always violent and unexpected in his reactions. He is the irresistible force and she is the immovable object, and though she is the one who is made to suffer in "The Immigrant," Bruno is the one who suffers from a lack of self-worth and a lack of direction. No matter what bad things happen to Ewa, she always has her religion and her pride to get her through, but Bruno, it seems clear, has nothing. The way they try to reach out to each other is the crux and main drama of "The Immigrant."
The film’s period recreation of New York in 1921 is meticulously drawn in rich, dark colors and chiaroscuro displays of light and shadow. Gray is a very conscious filmmaker who lets no visual detail escape his attention, and sometimes that has the effect of making everything seem preserved in amber, or as if we are watching a dream. It might be said that he is presenting the narrative from Ewa’s point of view because the steady rhythm of the shots and framing suggest a careful controlling of what we see and what we don’t see. For instance, when the eccentric and love-struck Bruno gradually and remorsefully leads Ewa into prostituting herself for him, we see her misgivings and then her own gradual, martyred acceptance of her nearly hopeless situation in stages without ever having to see the degradation of the prostitution itself. Gray keeps that from us until a very upsetting scene where Ewa is left alone on stage by Bruno and has to endure a hailstorm of verbal abuse from the men in the audience. Gray keeps the camera tightly on Ewa’s face as she stands there and takes in the vicious, misogynist taunts from these men. Without showing us the men or showing us what they do to her in bed, Gray makes you feel the brutal assault on her dignity and the storehouse of pride she has to access to endure it.
After Ewa has been working as a prostitute for a while, she starts to look heavy-lidded and "sultry," as if she is putting on the accoutrements of a "fallen woman" without ever fully believing that it is anything more than a role. Gray has obviously watched films of the 1910s and early 1920s to feed the overall atmosphere of "The Immigrant," and this extends to the characterization of Ewa, who glows from the screen, vulnerable but rigidly un-giving, like the heroines of D.W. Griffith movies; she moves in the languid way that Blanche Sweet did when she played "Judith of Bethulia" for Griffith in 1914. With every glance she says, "You will have my body, but you will never have my soul," and that drives Bruno crazy, of course. It must drive the other men crazy, too, because they can do anything they want to her body but they can’t ever really get to her. She is spiritually off-limits, biding her time until she can get her sister out of quarantine and make a fresh start in America.