The year is 1921. You and your sister have come to America to start a new life. However, making it in the land of the free and home of the brave is no simple task. You have no money, you’re not married and apparently have no valid residence. On top of that, you’re known to have very loose morals. Along comes a savior with a lucrative offer. Do you take his offer, regardless of the consequences?
The Immigrant offers a look at an individual who finds themselves in a horrible situation where the use of her body becomes her one way toward achieving their goal. The film asks us to consider whether it’s sinful to do horrible things in order to survive. Does using your body for money become more acceptable if the long term goal is to save someone else? Let’s dive right in.
The film begins in the year 1921. A Polish woman named Ewa Cybulska, played by Marion Cotillard, and her sister, Magda Cybulska, played by Angela Sarafyan, come to Ellis Island, New York City as immigrants who have escaped the ravages of the Great War from their homeland- Poland. They wish to make a new life for themselves. Magda has a slight cough, which Ewa tells her to cover up so the two won’t be separated.
It’s no good, though. After a brief examination, a doctor decides to quarantine Magda due to her lung disease. Ewa is forced to move on by herself. At the check-in, a clerk deems that Ewa is ineligible to continue because she’s not married and has no money. More than that, she’s accused of having low morals due to her actions on the boat over to America. Ewa insists that she be let through, as her aunt and uncle are waiting for her, but the clerk tells her that the address is not valid. All of this could lead to Ewa being liable to a public charge, but she may be sent back to Poland.
In comes Bruno Weiss, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who notices Ewa’s fluency in English and bribes an officer to let her go. Bruno tells Ewa that he works for a travel society and can guarantee Ewa work, so he brings her to his home.
When they arrive, Bruno offers Ewa a sewing job. She’ll have to fill out some paperwork, first. Ewa, wary of her surroundings, looks to leave, but Bruno warns her that the streets of New York City are dangerous for an unescorted lady. She decides to remain. Sometime later, Bruno tells Ewa that he received a telegram regarding Ewa’s health: she has tuberculosis and requires a lot of money to pay for her health care. So Ewa will be a seamstress at the nearby theater.
Ewa meets some of Bruno’s other employers at a bathhouse, where she learns that Bruno can have a bit of a temper, but is a good guy. All of the girls there needed help once, but Bruno helped them land on their feet.
That evening at dinner, Bruno introduces Ewa to Rosie Hertz, played by Yelena Solovey, the owner of the Bandits’ Roost theater. Rosie believes that Ewa will make a nice fit for their type of work.
During a wager that Ewa is not a part of, she takes some money from the money hat when she thinks no one else is looking. However, Bruno notices and confronts her about this when they arrive back at Bruno’s. Bruno admits that he himself has done terrible things to get where he is now. That’s the nature of the lives they live. Bruno doesn’t think that Ewa is being very smart. He wants to help her, but she must be open to his offer.
That offer means dressing up as Lady Liberty and showcasing her body in front of a crowd of whooping, hollering men. Ewa isn’t entirely ready, so Bruno offers her some absinthe to ease the tension. During this, a man arrives with his son. The man tells Bruno that his son isn’t manly yet and needs some “care.” That care, the man believes, can be delivered by Ewa, but Bruno is hesitant to let someone as fresh and delicate as Ewa partake.
Ewa doesn’t get much of a say in the matter. She awakens in her bed, quite intoxicated. The young man, named Leo, enters and tells Ewa that he’s only doing this because his father wants him to. Bruno, in confidence, tells Ewa that he doesn’t want her to do this, but she has to do this for the greater good: saving her sister. No one will ever know. He offers to send Leo away, but Ewa says nothing. Leo returns and as he reaches out to touch Ewa, we fade to black.
After a tense confrontation with her aunt and uncle, which I’ll get more into later, Ewa attends a show at the center where Magda is being held. There, she witnesses, first glance, the spectacle that is Orlando the Magician, played by Jeremy Renner. Orlando dazzles the audience and asks why they’re in America: because they believed the American dream was within their grasp. The moment he lays his eyes on Ewa, he presents her with a white rose and calls her a beautiful wonder.
Let’s hold it there.
The Immigrant gives viewers a distorted look at the American dream. The land where anyone can make it big is portrayed as corrupt and unpleasant. This is, by no means, an uplifting film save for Ewa’s drive to reunite with Magda. Just the possibility of seeing her face again fuels her to make decisions she ends up regretting. One of the messages I grasped from the film was how survival can lead us further into sin, even if we believe we’re surviving for a noble cause. If we have the means to survive, we have a responsibility to outlast the odds for as long as possible.
Faith is one of the bigger themes of the film. Ewa is a devout Catholic. Throughout the film, we watch her pray to Mary not just for guidance or forgiveness, but that Magda is alive and safe. Ewa has morals and is clearly worried about the status of her soul. One of Cotillard’s greatest moments comes through a scene where Ewa confessions how she has used her body for money. There’s not just sadness or regret in her voice- there’s fear that her behavior has doomed her to damnation. However, as the priest hears her cries, he reminds her that the Good Lord also rejoices when one of his lost sheep returns to the flock. Like the parable of the Lost Son, there is always an opportunity for redemption, no matter how far we’ve fallen. I’ll touch upon this more when discussing Ewa herself, but suffice to say that she is a woman who takes her faith seriously.
The film itself is well paced. This is not a fast moving movie and director James Gray takes the opportunity to show us every little detail of the gritty streets of New York. Along with cinematographer Darius Khondji, the world Gray has created runs rampant with corrupt police officers who don’t enforce Prohibition and cramped homes that reminded me of the tenement housing showcased in Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. If this is the scene that greets immigrants arriving to America, their perception of the American dream would surely change. This is a far cry from the dazzling New York life portrayed in The Great Gatsby and stands in contrast to the cultural and economic prosperity representative of what we now refer to as Roaring Twenties.
Much of the horrific life of prostitution is showcased through dialogue. Sure, The Immigrant has an R rating, but I’d say that’s more due to the swearing and scenes that include topless women. There’s no on-screen sex anywhere at all in this movie. I’m not saying this movie is accessible for everyone. The conversations alone spell out how women degrade themselves in order to make money.
When Orlando brings Ewa on stage during one of his performances, men in the audience talk of their experiences with Ewa, with one man in particular wanting Ewa to ride his “torch.” We never sit in on Ewa’s sessions. Anytime we join her, a session is either about to begin or has just ended. What happens during these intimate moments is left up to the viewer’s imagination.
Ewa, despite facing many odds, is still a driven woman. Marion Cotillard found a way to make this character sympathetic and not at all pathetic. As evidenced when she steals money, one of Ewa’s motivations is desperation. If she’s going to be in this ugly situation where she must use her body in order to rescue her sister, she won’t just lie down and take it. She assimilates into her new surroundings. She has a great moment where she tells one of Bruno’s other women that she’s not “nothing.” Despite her current position, she ultimately refuses to let Bruno define her. She starts off with dreams of settling down with a family and kids, but reaching that far off dream comes with a price.
It helps that Ewa has no one to turn to. We don’t learn much about her home life in Poland aside from the fact that her parents were killed and decapitated by soldiers during the war. I don’t mind not learning about her past since she and Magda came to America to get away from that.
As mentioned, there’s a scene where Ewa manages to find with her aunt and uncle. What starts off as a reunion turns into a horrible reality when, after Ewa’s uncle turns her into the authorities on the grounds that his home will not be disgraced by her behavior, Ewa realizes that she has few allies in her corner. She doesn’t trust Bruno- she just likes the money he gives her. She doesn’t start off this way, mind you, and it takes her awhile to go from submissive to having control.
She doesn’t enjoy having sex with random men or parading around like a showgirl, but if it’s for the greater good, she’s willing to take those chances. The possibility of uniting with Ewa drives her to do desperate things that she clearly regrets. But she at least grows aware of the violence around her, as seen when she grabs the nearest weapon whenever she feels threatened.
Again, her faith plays a big part in her drive. While Magda is very much top priority, she takes any opportunity she can to pray. She questions whether it’s still a sin to do what it takes to survive when the things you’ve done are bad. But she questions her soul after she’s allowed a man she knew little about to use her.
Though Ewa isn’t as layered as some would like, I understood what emotions she portrayed on screen, and that shined both through Gray’s direction and Cotillard’s performance. Ewa ultimately believes that landing in this situation is for a purpose far beyond rescuing Magda, as she thinks that God has sent her to rescue Bruno from the darkness. This concept is introduced late into the film, so we don’t get to explore it that much, but Ewa has so much on her plate already that there probably wouldn’t have been time to fit it in earlier.
This brings me to Bruno, who is given a commanding presence thanks to Phoenix’s performance. He embodies the slick talker who offers a way out for the desperate and willing. Bruno isn’t a villain, mind you. In fact, he’s had his fair share of tragedy that I won’t divulge. Needless to say, he knows that what he’s doing is wrong, but he sees himself as a liberator to women who he feels need rescuing.
But as both Orlando and one of the prostitutes tell Ewa, Bruno has his fits of rage. When he strikes, I wondered whether he would take his anger out on one of the women, but this is no woman beater. In fact, I can’t recall if he ever laid a finger on any of the women out of anger. As Bruno begins to develop feelings for Ewa, it leads to a divide between the others. Not just that, but when Bruno sees that Orlando also cares for Ewa, it’s all he can do to keep her all to himself. His motivation is love. An admirable motivation, but still a selfish one, given how much hope he’s given Ewa that she would see her sister alive and well.
Bruno doesn’t come off as the typical pimp you would expect. At least, based on what we’re given here. He doesn’t rip off the women. He keeps them in relatively good conditions and housing. When Ewa is about to engage in her first prostitution stint, Bruno admits that he would prefer that she doesn’t do it, but it’s for a greater good. He didn’t even want Ewa to be selected because she was new. Maybe that was more because he wanted to keep her for himself, but he does make an effort to at least try and keep Ewa as pure as possible. Bruno knows this city. He gets that there are certain men who would take serious advantage of Ewa, and he never allows that to happen. When men make catcalls at Ewa on stage, Bruno has her brought off, claiming that Orlando embarrassed her.
And though I like Jeremy Renner in the role, Orlando, or “Emil,” as Bruno calls him, is more of the knight in shining armor archetype. Most of what we learn about Emil comes through what Bruno tells Ewa. This could have turned into a conflicted love triangle, but the focus is primarily on Ewa and Bruno. Emil has good intentions. He’s a traveler and offers to bring Ewa with him. He can see the desperation in her eyes and hear it in her voice, but never tries to push her into making a decision. He acknowledges that she has a right to be happy and can make her own choices. He’s the complete opposite of Bruno: he’s charming, a gentleman and knows how to dazzle a crowd in ways that don’t involve degrading himself or anyone else involved.
We learn from Bruno that Emil used to gamble, but he’s grown from that, from what we see. Renner has, by far, the most animated performance in the film. He’s introduced late in the film, but makes good use of the scenes he’s in. In fact, one could argue that Emil’s character almost doesn’t even fit in this world, given his cheery disposition juxtaposed against the chaotic world he lives in.
The Immigrant turns the American dream on its head. In a world filled with chaos, filth and greed, we watch a woman debase herself through sin. She suffers for a loved one not because she can, but because she feels she has to. But despite her circumstances, Ewa never loses sight of the greater goal. The scary part of it all is how true the film is to life, both in the past and present. How often do we hear of men and women who are forced into impossible situations where they must use their bodies to satisfy others so they can make it to the next day alive? And how quick are we to judge them as having the same loose morals that branded Ewa the moment she landed in America?
This is a bleak film to watch. The strong performances from Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner enhanced the film’s enjoyment factor for me. At the end of the day, the film asks: despite how far we can fall, is there still goodness in us all? Can we truly redeem ourselves after unspeakable and seemingly unforgivable acts? Or are some destined for darker forever with absolutely no chance of redemption? And as much as I distaste the ongoing reality of human trafficking, I can’t help but think about the people who contemplate these questions and more on a daily basis. Did they have a chance or were they also coerced into the possibility of a new life before being deceived? How far would they go to have a fraction of the privileges that we take for granted? It makes my skin crawl to think about it.
I very much recommend The Immigrant.