Tender Buttons

James Gray, The Immigrant, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes. Bruno Weiss and Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix).

A DORSAL VIEW of the Statue of Liberty dominates the first shot of James Gray’s The Immigrant: Her back turned, the Lady of the Harbor is already forsaking the just-arrived huddled masses before they’ve even been processed at Ellis Island. The image is blunt and potent, like much of this fable set in New York during the winter of 1921.

One of those Atlantic-crossing refugees is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard). She has fled Poland with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is pulled out of the inspection line by officials alarmed by her incessant cough and wan pallor. Told that her sibling will have to spend at least six months in the island’s tuberculosis ward, Ewa, made even more vulnerable by this sudden separation, is befriended by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, in his fourth film with Gray), an unctuous fellow in a derby presenting himself as a member of the Travelers Aid Society. He is, in fact, the very type of sordid creature that the TAS was formed to combat: a two-bit burlesque impresario and pimp, who is soon selling Ewa’s services in the Lower East Side tenement where he houses his other whores.

Gray’s fifth film, which he cowrote with Richard Menello, plunges further into melodrama, expanding the emotional extravagance that the director explored in earnest in his previous movie, the romantic tragedy Two Lovers (2008)—though his first three features, all outer-borough crime sagas, are also unabashedly operatic. Inspired by a production he saw in 2009 of Puccini’s Il Trittico, particularly the triptych’s second installment, Suor Angelica, about a nun’s redemption, Gray has said that with The Immigrant, he wanted to make “an opera translated to a movie.” While it is both epic and exalted—qualities enhanced by cinematographer Darius Khondji’s sepia-rich palette—The Immigrant is also the rare period piece that never seems embalmed. The film’s vitality emerges from its intimate observations—like Ewa’s first experience eating a banana—many of which were informed by the memories of the director’s own grandparents, Russian émigrés who arrived at Ellis Island in 1923.

But the beating heart of the movie is Cotillard, whose saucer eyes recall those of imperiled silent-screen legends like Lillian Gish. (“We’ve got to compete with the motion pictures,” Bruno’s boss at the burlesque house tells him, their salacious entertainment contrasting greatly with the tales of female purity Gish was making with D. W. Griffith at the time the film takes place.) The French actress has the distinction of being the first female protagonist in Gray’s films, her character occupying the vertex of the director’s favorite configuration, the triangle: Ewa is desired by both Bruno and his charming magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner). Watching Cotillard, I often thought of her performance in another recent intervention in melodrama, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2012). In that film, characters never break out of molds; they exist only to push a preposterous, sentimental scenario along. Coincidences sometimes pile up in The Immigrant, and a final-act confrontation between Ewa and Bruno occasionally strains credibility with its confessions. But Gray, unlike Audiard, evinces such genuine feeling for his characters that it’s hard not to be moved even during these weaker moments. As Fassbinder once said of the melodramatist he admired most, “Sirk has made the most tender [films] I know, films by a man who loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do.”

The Immigrant opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 16.