The Immigrant and the "Moral Occult"

Having finally seen James Gray’s wonderful new film, The Immigrant, which made its debut at Cannes in 2013 but is only now rolling out in theatres across North America and streaming on Netflix US, I have had some trouble in trying to describe what it is about it that strikes me so.

Yes, the cinematography from Darius Khondji is impeccable; both Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard give moving and rich performances that rank among their best, but The Immigrant doesn’t fit neatly into the critical categories and shorthand commonly used today. It is at turns a prestige period piece, creating a detailed portrait of 1921 Manhattan, and recalls stripped down European “realism,” in its restraint. Its formal precision calls to mind the foregrounding of authorship and its complex characters recall the ambiguity of the art house. And yet, it never feels overstuffed. It is ultimately a simple film, well made.

I had read other reviews reference films such as The Godfather—I take them to mean Part II and the young Vito immigration sequences in particular—and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. These touchpoints are not off-base. More insightful were comparisons to the works of John Ford and other classical Hollywood dramas, especially those with strong female leads.

And then I recalled Linda Williams’s essential essay, Melodrama Revised,” that I had read for a class on film melodrama and the woman’s picture.  In it Williams articulates a revised understanding of the melodrama. She introduces the piece thus:

Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures. It is not a specific genre like the western or the horror film; it is not a deviation of classical realist narrative; it cannot be located primarily in woman’s films, “weepies,” or family melodramas—though it includes them. Rather, melodrama is a peculiarly democratic and American form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action. It is the foundation of the classical Hollywood movie. (42)

I think that The Immigrant offers an example of a film that is operating strongly in this melodramatic mode, something noted in many reviews, sometimes pejoratively. Even though its “excesses” are not overt, it is most fundamentally concerned with establishing the moral virtue of its protagonist; this virtue is hidden from many of the other characters, but shines through in the end. The film also elicits pathos from the viewer; something described by many of its admirers is how the film moved them, which supports this view.

The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant arriving on Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). From the first shot of the film, featuring the back of the Statue of Liberty, the twin forces of injustice and hope are foreshadowed. Ewa’s suffering begins almost immediately, as her sister is taken from her and put into quarantine for tuberculosis and Ewa is told that the address she has for her aunt and uncle doesn’t exist. Ewa herself is almost deported as a morally questionable woman, due to her being sexual assaulted on the ship coming over. At the last minute, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who had been watching the whole time offers to help Ewa out, convincing the officers to release her into his custody in Manhattan.

However, Bruno’s intentions are not pure. Through a series of manipulations he convinces Ewa that her only option is to become a prostitute working for him, in order to earn enough money to get Magda out of quarantine. Ewa relents, though she eventually decides to seek out her aunt and uncle. She finds them, but her uncle refuses to help her because of her damaged reputation. Ewa is almost deported again, but once again Bruno is opportunistically there to take her back.

While on Ellis Island, Ewa sees the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner) perform and he takes note of her. It turns out Orlando is actually Bruno’s cousin, Emil, who immigrated with him when they were boys. Both Bruno and Emil have background in performance, something which Bruno uses in pimping his girls, while Emil has found a more respectable trade. Emil falls for Ewa, at which point he realizes Bruno has fallen for her as well. Of course, things don’t go well for this doomed triangle. Bruno accidentally kills Emil in a fight and flees with Ewa.

Ewa’s suffering in the face of her moral resolve to help her sister is key to the film’s melodramatic mode of address. Time and again, Ewa is put in terrible situations but we never doubt her moral standing. Despite the film’s restraint—it never hits the viewer over the head or holds his or her hand—it remains resolutely a melodrama. As Williams argues, it is not an excess of sentiment or lack of realism that defines the mode, but rather the function of revealing hidden or misunderstood (to the characters of the film’s world) virtue that marks the melodramatic.

Williams cites Peter Brooks’s notion of the “moral occult” as one of the key conceptions in this refiguring of the melodramatic mode. That is, the expressing of spiritual values that might be masked by the surface reality of the film. The “moral occult” of The Immigrant is revealed in two striking scenes: one of Ewa’s confession to a priest, and the other in the ending where Bruno helps Ewa get Magda off Ellis Island, confessing that he had the money to get Magda out the whole time and says he will turn himself in for the murder of Emil.

These scenes reveal the previously hidden morality of both characters. Ewa’s moral virtue is less surprising to the viewer, though it shows the depths of her resolve. She confesses to the priest that she has taken to selling herself in order to help her sister, and when he offers her absolution and advises that she should leave Bruno immediately, Ewa cannot turn her back on her sister, and willingly taking on the burden of hell, if need be. The ultimate self-sacrifice that Ewa is capable of reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, standing in the rain seeing her daughter living the good life and acquiescing to never seeing her again for her daughter’s sake. It reveals a kind of moral standing beyond what the societies of the respective films or viewers might accept.

The second scene, where Bruno confesses to Ewa and lets her go also reveals a kind of “moral occult” in operation, as even Bruno, who has been calculating, manipulative, and cruel is revealed as containing moral depths. He is capable of love after all, even after the opportunity to do good is gone—the money that they use to get Magda off the island is borrowed from Ewa’s aunt, after the police beat Bruno and take his own stash.

These scenes, which could be played for maximum sentiment, are remarkable sequences. Both Cotillard and Phoenix shine in these moments. Cotillard performs the more subtle role, communicating mostly with her eyes and gestures. It’s almost a silent film role. Director Gray can be excused for comparing her to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Phoenix on the other hand is much more emotional and physical in his “confession” scene, drawing on the same tortured expressions that he did in The Master.

The Immigrant’s strength is in the way it combines complex moral ambiguity with the notion of the “moral occult” from the melodramatic mode. Because of this, the film seems equally rooted in European traditions (e.g. Dostoyevsky) as it does in the American ones (e.g. John Ford). The remarkable final shot of the film features a mirror next to a window, showing both Ewa and Bruno leaving the viewer in the same screen direction, even though they are actually moving in opposite directions. It’s a testament to how Gray manages to convey so much through visual storytelling. The film’s restraint mutes some of the melodramatic tendencies of the film.

Rarely does a film manage to impress this strongly on both an emotional level and a technical one. The Immigrant is part of a long tradition of melodramatic American filmmaking, married to the best tendencies of contemporary realism and art house composition. The result is one of the very best American films of recent years.

The Immigrant

Directed by James Gray; written by James Gray & Ric Menello; starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner.