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The New Americans

Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

I have found myself disconcerted in writing about James Gray’s The Immigrant. I was immediately moved by the film and couldn’t fail to appreciate its elegantly controlled cinematic style, but I also felt there was something elusive and hard-to-pin-down about the many levels on which it attempts to address the audience.

The film is consistently surprising in how traditional it is in some ways, how unabashed it is in its tenderness toward its characters, the milieu and historical period. Yet the film never succumbs to the twin dangers of stereotypical downbeatness or sugar-coated wish-fulfillment; it has an unusually complex level of identification with the dreams of its characters as they struggle to survive.

Heroine Ewa (Marion Cotillard) confronts the specter of victimization as a woman, a foreigner and a Catholic. Yet the film establishes the fact that she and almost all the characters have an inner emotional and spiritual force that is every bit as decisive in motivating their behavior as the environment. In the midst of scarcity, desire still has its say. Ewa acknowledges, from early on, that she is in a desperate Darwinian war of survival, but she imagines quite consciously (if at times desperately) some reconciliation between that and a spiritual value her life might have. She keeps these contradictory senses of herself alive even while acknowledging the often humiliating and degrading gap between them.

The two other main characters—Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a would-be theatrical impresario and pimp who falls unrequitedly in love with Ewa and his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), the optimistic hopeful stage performer who befriends Ewa—are seen as having their own dreams of virtue and goodness, no matter how sordid much of their behavior and experiences turn out to be. Gray is recalling a time when notions like “bettering oneself” economically were not necessarily opposed to or separate from moral values. Ewa doesn’t hesitate to say she “likes money,” and yet saying so doesn’t preclude an obstinate yearning to regain her purity. But Gray doesn’t idealize Ewa so much as recognize that idealization is one of the human resources keeping her alive. Masculine protectiveness, as practiced in different ways by Bruno and Emil, is not seen exclusively as exemplifying cynical authoritarian patriarchy, though again it is never entirely separable from those qualities.

James Gray and Darius Khondji on the set of The Immigrant
James Gray and Darius Khondji on the set of The Immigrant

The tenderness and complexity of Gray’s view of the characters is matched by his layered conception of the period and milieu. For all the suffering depicted, the streets, rented rooms, and stage spaces captured by Darius Khondji’s camera have an unapologetic lyrical beauty. Throughout there are fascinated glimpses of an earlier stage of what we today call mass culture, shown as linked to genuine theatrical-artistic traditions, part of a collective appetite/need for pleasure that is democratically available to everyone, as well as being an ominous gateway to everything negative we know and feel about pop culture today: its shallowness, venality and money-centered corruption.

The film’s title is shared with one of Chaplin’s early great shorts, and the whole movie seems to exist in a hushed conversation with the traditions of silent film and the vitality we today find in those films, whose makers themselves were testing older 19th century theatrical traditions against their own experience of the impact of modernity. Many moments evoke previous classic efforts to define the immigrant experience cinematically: America, America, The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time In America. The scale of the film is miniscule compared to those epics, but it still finds a way to be answering them in its own distinctive way.

The Immigrant manages to reconcile oppositional forces—social realism versus magic, the brutality of struggling to survive versus the fable-like persistence of purity and innocence, the highs and lows of beauty and squalor—and blend them with uncanny precision, rendering both a vivid record of past suffering and hardship and a luminous dream of that past and its sense of possibility.

You and a writer named Richard Menello are credited with having written this thing. How did it start? I had seen an opera at the LA Opera. It was Il trittico by Puccini, which is basically three operettas. Two are tragedies: one is called Il tabarro, and the other’s called Suor Angelica. And the third is called Gianni Schicchi. The two tragedies were directed by William Friedkin, and the comedy was directed by Woody Allen. It was a fantastic evening, but the thing that was amazing to me about it was the second opera in particular, the Suor Angelica, which starred a female soprano protagonist. My wife and I both were weeping like babies; it was an amazingly emotional experience. I turned to her on the way home and said, “You know, it’s interesting that Hollywood used to make these fantastic melodramas starring women — Barbara Stanwyck kind of things. They don’t really make them anymore.”

So it started me thinking about a kind of operatic melodrama starring a woman. Right around the same time, I had seen Fellini’s La Strada again, very much by accident. I couldn’t sleep one night, started to watch television and it was on. And I was blown away. It seemed very operatic in the same way, and it played almost like a fable. So I combined my own family’s history with this sort of Puccini-esque thing with La Strada, and then it sort of started to take shape that way.

Opera is not in vogue. No, it’s not.

And melodrama’s not in vogue. No, not at all. They rely on a certain amount of sincerity — there’s no irony or distance or snark. And that is not at all in vogue. And also, to tell the story in a very straightforward way, is also not in vogue. So I knew it was not something in vogue, but it felt very close to me — very emotional and honest.

Talk a little bit about your own family story and how it connects to this story. There were a bunch of major immigrant waves into the United States — the sort of original Plymouth Rock group, but then the 1840’s/1850’s potato famine Irish and, in the 1890s, a large amount of Eastern Europeans. My family came very late. My family came [to America] in 1923 from what is now Ukraine, outside of Kiev, a small town which was repeatedly invaded by the Czar’s troops. My great-grandparents were killed during a pogrom. As you know, after 1917, for a period of time, there were the red and the white armies, and Russia was in a state of chaos.

So my family came over in 1923, and they spoke no English. It was all Yiddish in the house up until the day they died. Even when [my grandparents] would tell me stories, I could barely understand them. What I could [pick up] was this incredibly strange, and to me, incoherent melancholy, the opposite of the kind of common myth, like, [in accent] “I came to America, and it was amazing, and the streets were paved with gold.” My grandfather would sit there and he would talk about how great the old country was. There’s a scene in The Immigrant: Marion Cotillard is in the church confessing, and she says, “The ship is very dirty. We’re all together like animals.” All this stuff is virtually verbatim from my grandparents’ stories about the trip over to the United States — the stories they told me about thinking spaghetti was bloody worms, not knowing how to eat a banana, experiencing Ellis Island, and the attitude of the immigrant officers to them.

On the set of The Immigrant
On the set of The Immigrant

They traveled over together, though. They did at least have each other. The stuff of Ewa’s loneliness was actually your grandparents’ collective experience? Oh, absolutely, but they did not come together. They came separately. I believe [my grandmother] came with her sister because I don’t think they would’ve let single women into the country. So, if memory serves me correctly, my whole family wound up coming over, but I think she came only with her sister. My grandfather came by himself. They met at a Workmen’s Circle dance in Brooklyn, somewhere around 1925, I think. And then, of course, they gave birth to my father in 1935. My grandfather found employment as a plumber for other Jewish households. Those stories were all amazing, and they met sort of halfway with my mother’s side of the family. On that side of the family, I had a great aunt who told me family stories. In fact, she just died. She was 101.

Wow. And she was completely coherent until close to the end. She told us stories. They had a restaurant on the Lower East Side, and there was a guy, a Jewish pimp named Max Hochstim, who had what was called The Association, which was a group of girls that he would pimp out. So it became a combination of those things, coupled with stories I had read about a place called The Haymarket, which was, I believe, in the Tenderloin district. I combined all of these things to make the story. I had never seen a movie about what they used to call white slavery, which was women coming through Ellis Island who were made into prostitutes. I thought it would be an interesting subject to pursue [in] the style of these kind of operatic melodramas.

The highest tribute I can pay to the film is that it achieves the same double effect one finds in much of the greatest work of John Ford. People debate whether Ford is revising the legend or if he believes in the legend. And the answer is, of course, both. He’s revealing the harsh realities underneath the legend, and at the same time, the legend has a reality for him, too. It has spiritual meaning. It has emotional meaning. It has meaning in terms of his own theory about America. And I felt that you achieved something along the same lines here. Wow, that’s so great. I’m so happy that you feel that way, because, well, you know that I have loved Ford.

Don’t you think that describes your intent, that double thing? Well, it certainly describes the intent. I couldn’t be so presumptuous as to say that it achieves that. But, the intent was certainly there. The thing that haunts me over and over again, that I keep coming back to, is how can I be arrogant enough to make a film which I think people are going to want to see that is personal, but at the same time then remove myself and my ego completely when I make the movie? In other words, try and make as generous a movie towards the characters and story as possible, and never say that I am better than anybody or anything in the film. If you got rid of everything else in Ford — including, by the way, the technical brilliance that people don’t really talk about that is there in abundance — the thing that moves me the most, that is amazing about what he was able to achieve, is that, in some perverse way, he is a very selfless director. He has given himself entirely to the characters. He has given himself entirely to the narrative. And that’s what makes them beautiful.

And by the way, I would say the same is true for at least two Hitchcock movies, where he was able to achieve this kind of grace, despite some rather awkward formal devices, which are Vertigo and Notorious, for me. That’s not to say those are the only two great movies he ever made. I love Rear Window, too. There are bunch of great movies. But, in those films, even as formal a director as Hitchcock was, he was able to feature a certain beauty and generosity toward the characters. And I think that’s just the great gift of American narrative cinema.

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant
Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

This is the first time it dawned on you to let opera influence the style of a film of yours? I guess it had influenced the style of the films — it’s certainly in Two Lovers in a somewhat conscious way. But this was the first time I left the male protagonist thing at home, you know? I mean, that’s what was very emboldening: the idea that I could do something which would not rely on any trappings of macho behavior, to get straight to the emotion of it. “Operatic” is almost always mischaracterized as over-the-top melodramatic, which, as you know better than anybody, Larry, is not the same as melodrama.

Right. You know, “melodramatic” is when there’s no courage of its convictions. Over the top, programmed for a convenient emotional reaction as opposed to what is organic or genuine. The thing that’s so magical about Ford — who, by the way, is in his own way operatic — is that there is no wall between him and his characters. For example, look at How Green Was My Valley, a movie I love. He completely empathizes with their situations. We’re talking about something that is beyond out of vogue, but I have always felt that the cinema was the best when it did that because there’s a proximity and an intimacy with great cinema that is not reproducible in any other medium. You can’t do it on stage because the actor’s too far away. You can’t do it on TV because the screen is too small. The camera sees through the actor on the big screen in a way that allows for total identification — I guess what they used to call suture. And I don’t think that that’s vulgar.

This is a depiction of the period that knows that there’s a cinematic history of representing it. Nobody watching this film fails to recognize that its maker has seen The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in America and America, America, and that there’s a cinematic tradition of representing this period. Can you talk about how you and Darius Khondji conceived of that? It’s interesting because obviously, The Godfather Part II and America, America weighed very much on our minds, but we did try—and maybe failed in this respect—to move past them. We didn’t want to rip them off. In fact, we didn’t even watch them. Before shooting, I sometimes screen movies, but this time, we watched very few. We watched, believe it or not, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and La Strada.

The thing that we tried to draw inspiration from really was painting. And we looked at one other thing, which was the Lumière Autochromes [early color photography prints]. They’re quite beautiful, and we looked at them particularly for the daytime exteriors, what few there are in the movie. But we also looked a lot at, in particular, the Ashcan School: mostly Everett Shinn and John Sloan, but also William Glackens and George Bellows, a little bit. The idea was to present a world that was very authentic, and yes, very much steeped in what was their version of popular culture: the beginnings of burlesque, the beginnings of the silent film culture, popular culture for movie going and the end of vaudeville stage popularity. We wanted to infuse it with a certain religiosity. Darius definitely looked at a lot of Caravaggio and painters like that. Primarily we were after not a representation of something that was realistic, but something that was a kind of a—risking pretension here— greater truth. [To give] a certain poetic quality to the period.

But there’s also the characters’ conception of themselves. In other words, the characters themselves are dreaming. That’s right. Exactly. We didn’t want it to be wallowing in an anthropological thing because that’s not really representative of a committed dignity and generosity towards the characters, which was really important to us.

What you have managed to do in the film is ground the sort of pragmatics of the drama and the social situation. The unique thing here is that redemptive idealizing moments and tendencies in the characters are not at odds with the sense of a grim economic reality that’s also determined in the action. Both of these elements are in play and in kind of conflict with each other at every point. That balancing is an amazing achievement. I’m so gratified. It was critical to us that we did not create saints and sinners, that those aspects of behavior would be inside everybody, and that the film would not judge its characters. We wouldn’t say, “So and so is a bad guy and so and so is a good guy.” It’s almost like, let’s say you were not a Jew in New York but a white guy from a Christian background living in Germany in 1933. Would you be a Nazi? It’s a hard question to answer. The easy answer would be, “No, I wouldn’t. I would never believe that.” But the more complex and difficult answer is that you don’t know what the cultural and social and ideological forces would demand of you, how they would force you to want to go into survival mode, and how that would affect how you behave and how you are with others. And so, I can’t point fingers at Joaquin Phoenix’s character and say, “You suck. You’re doing horrible things.” Well, he is, but that can’t be the whole story.

The whole movie seems like it’s in a kind of subtle conversation with silent cinema. We certainly thought about silent movies like crazy. We talked a lot about the Carl Dreyer film The [Passion of] Joan of Arc with [Renée] Falconetti. We talked a lot about Chaplin, particularly City Lights. He had the magnificent ability to combine tender and heartbreak. He had an incredible sense of balance. There’s a longing in the films, a certain — even if they are funny — real sadness to them, which is pure. It’s not depressing. It’s sad. There’s a very big difference. You know, I was talking before about Friedkin, who had directed the opera. He told [my wife and I] a funny story once, which I told to Darius before we started shooting. They were playing The Exorcist on a sheet in Thailand, and a guy would, every 10 minutes, stop the projector, walk up to the front and say, “Okay, in the last 10 minutes, here’s what you saw.” And he would translate. And then, they’d start the projector again. Then in 10 minutes they’d stop and he’d get up. And Friedkin said, “My job as a filmmaker is to try and put that guy out of business,” which really lingers in my mind. Like, okay, if you were to turn down the sound and get rid of all the dialogue — which is not to say that dialogue doesn’t matter, it does — but let’s say you got rid of all the dialogue, could the emotional power of it survive? Would it still have any?

Well, certainly in your film the arc and the delicacy of the performances, especially Cotillard’s, with its incredible nuances, would carry a tremendous amount of that. We definitely focused on that idea. I kept saying the same thing to Darius, which was, “You know, sometimes to move forward, we have to look backwards.”

Do you want to speak a little bit about just what your method with Cotillard was? Did she need a lot of talk? She’s an incredibly talented person, and we talked a lot about the character beforehand. I kept talking to her about how I had not wanted to create a blameless person, but in a nonverbal way, to showcase this character’s will. Not to say, “I will have the courage to survive” — never to proclaim anything like that, but to get that in a nonverbal way. I remember I said I didn’t want her to act. And I didn’t even want her “to be.” I wanted her never to play a character. I wanted her to simply be herself, reveal herself, reveal part of herself, and that there would be no boundary between herself and the character. This was something I stressed ad nauseam, I think, to the point where she wanted to kill me.

Certainly the history I had to inform her about because she is not an American and didn’t really know about it. When we started shooting, I would not talk to her very much about character. What I would do was inform her on what I thought a gesture should be, and hopefully that would lead to a certain idea in her head. So, for example, there’s this scene after Caruso sings and he gives her the flower and she’s in her cell. And Joaquin comes back and says, basically, “Why did you run from me? There’s nothing I can do. I can’t help you.” And he stands up and is about to walk away as she grabs him, because she knows she needs him. But then she covers her face in shame. I told her to do that gesture to try and say, “Look, you need him and you hate yourself for it. There are both sides to the equation.” I tried to have gesture, and this is, in a way, very much from silent films, very much from opera, to have the gesture inform the interior life of the character.

Has the film opened in Europe? It opened in France.

And how’d it do there? I think it did pretty well, though that’s been the case with all my work in that country. It’s weird because I almost can’t stand to say that. When you say your work is admired in France, people tend to marginalize you, like, “Oh, he’s like Jerry Lewis or something.” And I love Jerry Lewis, by the way, so I never understood that. But you know what I mean? If your movie gets really well responded to by the French, they think you’re a schmuck or something. I think it’s come out, as of two or three days ago, believe it or not, in Russia and in Japan, but I haven’t gotten the statements, so I really don’t know. But, the one territory that’s big for the movie is France because they put up a lot of the money and that’s where my reputation seems to be quite strong.

There’s French money in the film, right? It was made with mostly French money. It was by far the largest share of the total budget, which wound up being, I think, $12.8 or $12.7, something like that.

Do you think you’ll make another film with these same financiers? Wild Bunch, they’re fantastic. I love them. They leave me alone. They let me make the film I care about, and they really support me, so they’re great. By the same token, they do what’s best for France, which is [a] Cannes [premiere] and all that, which is not necessarily best for me or for the film, but certainly for [their] domestic market. In that way, our interests conflict a little bit. But, if I had another film to make, of course I’d go there. They’re great. I mean, doing the film and supporting the filmmaker, there is nobody better.

Oh, I wanted to ask you about one other person you worked with on this movie because I had occasion once to talk about working with her. I’m referring to the great costume designer Patricia Norris. Forgetting costumes for a second, I’ll tell you a brief thing about her. She walked onto the stage of the theater, and she looked at the set, which was brilliantly done by Happy Massee, who did a great job for me. We were all looking at it, and, wow, there was something that was not quite singing yet. She went, “Paint the rim of the stage gold,” turned, and walked out. So, of course, we thought, “Oh, that might be good.” We did it, and it was of course, perfect. She knows exactly what to do. She has an incredible eye, because she knows what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. The woman is really incredible. She was never wrong. She’s the only collaborator I’ve ever had where I never overrode a single idea. I’ve never been that way with anybody else in any aspect of film production, whether it’s actors, the cinematographer, or editor. I saw Gordon Willis work a couple of times and it’s the same kind of thing — after a while, they just know exactly what to do. [They have] that level of expertise.

You and the family are in L.A. indefinitely for good? You’re living there now? Yeah, until I can get another movie made. I’d love to move back to New York. I mean, you know me. I’m a New Yorker. But, I don’t know how to do it. I have three children. I can’t afford it. It’s that simple. I wish I could, I’d love it. But, it’s just not possible for me. Maybe someday — I can dream, can’t I?

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