By Victor Bruno

The Form

The feeling that one has when watching James Gray’s The Immigrant (2013) is that the whole of the picture – every action, the importance, what really matters – is purely based in the form and its meaning. Or, perhaps, the meaning that is given by the film to such form. It is a film in which the figure goes through a process of projection of the desires and the feelings of the characters. Obviously, such figures do not need to be tangibles (even if they mostly are): the greatest figure of the film is the figure of America. Not the country, the United States, but the image of America. This America trades places with the word ‘home’. The place, your place; a sense of comfort. (What does Joshua [Tim Roth] says about his youngest brother in Little Odessa [1995]: ‘He’s smart. An American’.)

In the universe of The Immigrant – this great version of The Odyssey – there is a important desire of movement and proximity. This desire is only reached when there is contact. However, the unfolding of the action is limited by the very universe of the frame (the end of the frame equals to the limitation of the space) and, in another, much more important sense, by the emotional limitation of Ewa (Marion Cottillard). But the question remains the same: this character, who has such an intense desire of be sure of herself, of who she is – her importance in the world and whether what she is doing is right or wrong – why then does she have this emotional limitation, systematically rejecting almost every proximity to another body? There are two ways to look at this question:

  1. Because Ewa has no place. She is a being that walks. The Immigrant is a film about the lack of a beginning and the lack of an ending. It is, literally, a work about the piece of a journey: let us keep in mind that, when the film starts, we are in the crowded Ellis Island, harbour of entrance of the European immigrants in the interbellum period, and we find Ewa and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) in a waiting line. Gray operates the camera (like Michael Mann and M. Night Shyamalan, Gray is the only American director who knows how to use the camera as if it were an observational body – who else has the power, inside American cinema today, to make the camera register clear human expressions – sadness, happiness, excitation – based purely and simply on the conception of the framing and movements?) in this first moment in a way that is totally explicit to the viewer: there is a tracking shot, we follow a line and we stop, almost by the desire of destiny (maybe it really is a desire for destiny) by the side of Ewa and her sister. A journey in progress, a choice by lot (influence of The Crowd [King Vidor, 1928]?). The detachment that someone in transit has impedes her from making roots and ties. She is a Hamlet unable to love, even if this Hamlet receives love, because she is on a mission. But we can also consider:
  2. That Ewa is Polish. Ewa is septentrional, European without being European, because she does not have that romantic Continental flavour. She is a wanderer closed in herself. Gray has showed us in other movies – especially in Little Odessa – the self-closure (in that film, of the Russians) that an immigrant has. This knack for showing discloses an obvious origin, which comes from the totally personal character that all James Gray films have, and that is something he proudly (and also rightly) waves as a flag. Gray has already said that The Immigrant is based upon stories that his grandparents told him. And more importantly: as said by Gray himself in a documentary aired on French TV[i], he comes from a troubled and cold home, so it is obvious that this lack of human warmth will influence his character and his interests as an author.

Actually both the hypotheses are complementary and, thus, coexist in the film. But what one notes is that as long as Gray’s career progresses, the urgency to speak about himself in the first person singular grows less and less, while the genuine and latent urge to express a vision of the world through the form of the things grows larger. We can note this in various degrees.

To support the thesis that James Gray’s cinema is, above all, a eulogy of the image and its projections, it is necessary to have in mind where this anxiety comes from. Starting with The Yards (2000), Gray starts a journey in search of a cinema that is not only classic, but totally based on genre and with operatic lines. Little Odessa already showed this anxiety – preserved subsequently and illustrated by the generous use of CInemaScope –  but here it becomes clear and objective. In We Own the Night (2007), Gray demonstrates absolute control of the genre and of the architecture of the plot, and it is right here where he makes his mostly accessible work, because it is a film made under the light of clearness, simplicity and cohesion – the motto of early Gray.

But then there is Two Lovers (2008). A curve on the road. Without a doubt the most visual and materialist of Gray’s films, because it is focused almost exclusively on the look and in the obsession of the hunt of the perfect figure (symbolised in the form of woman). It’s a film in which the point of view effectively – and Gray has always been a filmmaker of meditation – of the ‘I’ is what makes the sense of the plot. There is the structure of the composition, the symbolism of the movements, the weight of the present and of the future. To Gray – functioning in the same vein as filmmakers as King Vidor and (the most direct influence) Robert Bresson – the part is only the part and solely the part, and not the part as a sign of totality. The head is a head, detached from the body, a thinking being, just like the sinful head of the girl in Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951) or the snip of the American family of An American Romance (King Vidor, 1944)[ii].

Who Will I Be Today?

Following this thematic, in The Immigrant the act is written in ink: once it is done, it cannot be undone. The thematic continues to unroll in a clear and logical way. In Two Lovers, the doom of Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) was his indecision, his lies and blindness. In The Immigrant there is no doom, there is the weight of conscience. There is payback. And there is something even greater, much more important than that. There the incomparable re-encounter with oneself.

Who can really say that there is a self-conscious character in the film, apart from Ewa? She is the one who never loses her objectives – but is deceived by the villainy of one and naïveté of the other – and has a clear and real focus at an end. Nobody else. Actually, whats exist in the film is this (and it is very touching): Ewa is saved because, as an Immigrant, as someone who walks in steady steps, unerring and urgent, and even if she runs late in her objectives, she does not get lost, she knows who she is.

On the other hand there is nothing of this for Bruno (Phoenix) and even less for Orlando the Magician/Emil (Jeremy Renner). Emil barely has an identity; he lives out illusions and performs under another name. Bruno, more quietly, lies, steals, says he does good and carries a false label – a blur of character so intense that he ends up believing in it. His final redemption is when he, with a broken jaw and locked to the floor, surrenders to the Greater Power and does his mea culpa (still, a better fate than Emil’s). The beauty of this poor man, because beauty here is found in the amber, in what isn’t clear, in what is almost erased, is that he is so human … While the magician, who he lives out of tricks, floats on the air with open arms, pretentious Christ-like, Bruno just is. A deceiver? A pimp? Yes. But: he is. He does not know that (if he knew he would be standing up equal to Ewa in the self-consciousness factor). Maybe ignorance is a blessing.

As The Immigrant is a film in which the flux of movements is overpowering and the structure/architecture of the appearances is the really the matter and substance of the film, under all those layers of melancholy, still if they are epic, there is a strongly ironic nucleus. À la the literary theory of Northrop Frye, it is ironic because is nobody’s fault: it could happen to anybody[iii].

Keeping this in mind, we notice that Gray does not distance himself from a cinema which thematic is in in the core of the contemporary output. But when he makes a film in which the object has no primordial function he puts in risk all the notion of contemporary cinema, that is, for a reason or other, more and more detached from the world and from that that is important and substantial. And what is effectively substantial in life? The colour, the touch, the flavour, the desire. And all of it is much schematised in The Immigrant. A banana that is eaten without being peeled; a hat with money on the inside; the flowers that someone receives. What appears to me is that when it is not overly scandalised – when it is not made in a publicity way, like Leonardo DiCaprio making sex with his wife over a bed of money in The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) – there will not be the intellectual Gestapo to bless the movie. (Let me propose, alas, a future discussion about how Gray, Mann and Shyamalan are the last ones who propose a frontal confrontation to contemporary cinema inside a mainstream body.)

The Colours of Violence

In Gray, the camera is an object that follows the movement of the actor while the actor explores the limits of the universe (the universe is limited, but limits were made to be broken), and expands it, bends it, returns it to itself. Once The Immigrant is a picture about someone who walks (and the fact that the film was shot in CinemaScope reinforces the notion that one goes farther in this format[iv]), the universe will suffer these alterations (and I could give millions of examples about the deformation of the frame when the unknown is explored, but I believe that the best one is the last cartoon of Calvin & Hobbes, exactly because [1] the last word said by Calvin is ‘exploring’ and [2] because the panels Watterson designed have a similar aspect ratio of the CinemaScope format). I.e.: the memory is born. And memory, obviously, is deceitful and liar; is a victim of the constant flux. The flux of ideas, of thinking, of knowledge and attitude.

I find little or no beauty at all in The Immigrant. What I see in the picture: poorness and pettiness that impregnates practically everything and everybody but Ewa (she is a saint). The work of Darius Khondji is almost totally structured upon a drowsy and automatic sepia veil. Then, yes, I hate to be the one who says it, but on the hands of another director the sepia of the photography would simply be the greatest evidence of the bureaucracy in which a ‘period film’ is usually thrown into inside the standards of the industry. In Gray, the sepia is the shock. As foresaid, the film is based upon the stories that the grandparents of the director told him when he was a kid – and as every story, certainly are omissions, exaggerations, or plain simple inventions (what does not mean, anyhow, that it is a lie: it’s only a new layer of perception of a truth, and the truth has multiples faces). Hence, it is a film of memories, and memories are subjects to the flux: the flux of time, of society and the movements that swept over these images of the past. Like a sheet of paper, perhaps a better example, the canvas in white, the effect of time went over it and all that is left is the yellow of age. The colours went dry, the purity gave place to the spirit of the decades. I do not see beauty in the colour (I do not see beauty in the whores that lie who they are, wearing clothes in which the red is barely noticeable, selling their bodies under a tunnel, in a desperate act) of the past of Gray’s family. But I do find the beauty of the experience. This is the meaning of The Immigrant. This is the purity of the form. It has infinite faces. Or only one, like the man who went stuck in the past for he was having his boots shined in that daguerreotype.

Knowing it, I think we have reached a conclusion. If everything is movement, if everything is formal, so Gray’s camera is no longer a camera-stylo and is now a camera-microscope or a camera-bucksaw, because it whittles and analyses frontally the situations and emotions. Henceforth, if we are seeing a film about someone who is going farther and is crying to reach her destiny to the will of destiny, what is left to us is being complacent to the sanctity of the woman who walks. The final shot reveals us a new form: two people so distinct, so distant between themselves, at the end of the day, are nothing else than two people reaching the same place, but following the path of a different road. One goes by the sea, other by the land, but then everything is the same. Everything is part of the flux[v].

The ending of The Immigrant is highly Mannian. There is the sea and its meditation. Gray already said that the sea is very important to him because it is full of possibilities, but also of uncertainty (darkness). It is another projection, another memory… The best way to finish it is to give him the right of the word.

‘I see the ocean, which has possibilities, but also darkness. I see the old and the new of New York. I see Manhattan, but only very dimly. And it seems so… sui generis. And why wouldn’t you explore that, you know what I mean?’
– James Gray

[i] Il était une fois… Little Odessa (2013). Notice how Gray is always with a stuttering voice when he talks about himself: Todas as citações de Gray vêm deste vídeo.

[ii] Rogério Sganzerla says exactly the opposite of what I am saying about Bresson in an article about Vidor called ‘King Vidor: a magia’, available here (in Portuguese).

[iii] ‘The fact that we are now in an ironic phase of literature largely accounts for the popularity of the detective story, the formula of how a man-hunter locates a pharmakos and gets rid of him. The detective story begins in the Sherlock Holmes period as an intensification of low mimetic, in the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance. But as we move further away from this we move toward a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one. The sense of a victim chosen by lot is very strong, for the case against him is only plausibly manipulated’. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 46.

[iv] ‘Every film is more or less about the progress of a man, and in CinemaScope he will go far’. François Truffaut, ‘A Full View’, in Jim Hiller (ed), Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950’s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 274.

[v] See what is to be said about the flux and the return to it by Jean-Baptiste Thoret, ‘Gravity of the Flux: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice’, Senses of Cinema, no. 42 (2007)