How do you make it in America? Work. Work hard. Work harder. So goes the mantra upon which (until recently) the world’s greatest economy and dominant culture was built. But while work will supposedly set you free, what will it cost? Or, at what point does making it—to that ever-moving, unattainable finish line—mean breaking yourself? In the films of James Gray, work (often of the shadier variety) cannibalizes his characters, drawing them into worlds where what they do defines their existence. Joshua (Tim Roth) is pulled back into the Brighton Beach crime circles of his youth in Gray’s astounding debut, Little Odessa (1994); ex-con Leo (Gray favourite Mark Wahlberg) finds himself lured to the literal wrong side of the tracks in The Yards (2000); in We Own the Night (2007), Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix, another frequent Gray collaborator) sides with the Russian mob, unlike his straight cop brother Joseph Grusinsky (Wahlberg). In Two Lovers (2008), marriage and business proposals become one and the same. In his latest, the Palme d’Or–nominated The Immigrant (2013), Gray doesn’t stray from the topic of life as labour. But here, the labouring American isn’t a crooked white boy dabbling in crime, but Lady Liberty herself.
In 1921, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard polishes her Polish in the part) arrives on Ellis Island, only to have her sister placed in quarantine and threatened with deportation. After this separation (the first of many moments that play to the genre of melodrama while also being deeply rooted in pathos), Ewa is told she cannot enter the Promised Land since she is a “woman of low morals.” This designation is based on untold (though easily deduced) circumstances that transpired during her voyage. Lurking in the masses of desperate humanity on Ellis Island is Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), a small-time pimp and theatre director who witnesses Ewa’s plight. Struck by her, he buys her passage off Ellis.
In a tale as old as time, Ewa begins working as a prostitute and performing in Bruno’s nightly show, stepping into the role of, yes, “Lady Liberty.” Here she meets Bruno’s cousin, Orlando the Magician—aka Emil (Jeremy Renner)—and they fall into a simple kind of love—he with her serene beauty, she with his insatiable belief that good will come. But it’s all too pure to last in America: Emil is murdered. In the wake of his killing, Bruno finally helps Ewa get her sister off Ellis. In the final shot, the narrative returns full circle, with Bruno standing on the island while Ewa sails away.
The last thing cinema needs is yet another tale of female exploitation that uses prostitution as some allegory for saintly sinning by yet another male director. The Immigrant, however, cannot—or ought not—be so easily dismissed. If Gray’s previous work hadn’t already established him as one of the greatest storytellers of contemporary times (see the mirror opening and closing shots of Wahlberg riding the subway in The Yards, or the perfectly envisioned Russian family homes where couches overflow with mink coats at Christmas parties in We Own the Night), The Immigrant only proves the point. Because while Gray works in archetypes—the bad gangster brother; the good-cop son; the beleaguered but tenacious girlfriend; the innocent woman turned lady of the night—he always captures the person within. No one is so easily reduced.
This transcendence is no small feat in The Immigrant, for the simple fact that Gray has turned from worlds dominated (though never only inhabited) by men, to one filled with women—and, crucially, their perspectives (Gray’s female characters have always been strong, but they’ve never taken centre stage before). So while Bruno does hold great sway over Ewa’s story, the film’s focus is her struggle to bear the burden of achieving the American dream. Her story, then, fills a historically overlooked female perspective on labour in film, one where work doesn’t take the form of the more cinematically celebrated narratives of macho American work life, like the mafia (The Godfather and The Godfather II) or crime rings (Gangs of New York). It’s the one that no one wants to talk about: sex.
After Bruno whisks Ewa off Ellis sans papers, she takes refuge in a room in his tenement building. Sent down to a bathhouse to freshen up, Ewa meets her soon-to-be coworkers, taking a moment of rest in the warm waters. The talk quickly turns to money, where one bathhouse occupant observes that women can either “wait for some white knight to come along—or [she] could steal.” The other option is soon laid on the table: “fucking.” This is the world of women’s work.
And, indeed, all sex in The Immigrant is transactional. (This is a labour story as much as a love story.) So while moving moments punctuate Emil and Ewa’s romance, their courtship remains chaste: there’s one kiss. (While fucking and flesh are all around them, this choice is less about some faux sense of intimacy or slut-shaming, and more about framing their relationship as the doomed stuff of fairy tales. There are no white knights in the Lower East Side’s tenements.) And Bruno, though desperately in love with Ewa, is never seen as a romantic partner, solely a business one. As soon as Ewa lands in America, her body becomes the only commodity she has to offer.
But what makes Ewa’s story more than a mere narrative of a Madonna/whore, is the fact that Gray highlights the circumstances in which Ewa has no control over her choice of labour. These conditions don’t make for a progressive moment of consent, but speak to the structural economic constraints by which she is bound. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Ewa goes to confess her sins. Bruno, having followed her, lurks outside the confession box, listening in. (Gray, ever the master of layers, emphasizes the gap between the two: Bruno is Jewish and a stranger in the one place Ewa seeks comfort.) The camera shifts so only Ewa’s face is in the light (an image that recalls Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s face in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc) as she says she’s “ashamed” for staying with Bruno. The priest, in response, urges her to “find a way to leave that man.” The situation in which Ewa found herself has never suggested that this would be a possibility, but here, with her visage encased in darkness, such advice has never seemed more improbable. She’s never looked so isolated. “So maybe I do go to hell,” she says. In Gray’s films, it’s never “just a job”: the labourer becomes the labour.
But more importantly in this scene, Ewa speaks, an action not assigned to her larger-than-life counterpart who greets newcomers at America’s gate. As the sonnet written by Emma Lazarus that’s engraved on a plaque by Lady Liberty’s feet reads:
Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
This is the role often granted to prostitutes in popular films: the silent caregiver and comforter who doesn’t make men’s lives more difficult by expressing her fears, joys or desires. But here we see the world through Lady Liberty’s point of view. During Ewa’s first appearance on stage as Lady Liberty, Bruno calls her into the spotlight by proclaiming, “[She] opens her arms to you and welcomes you to the bosom of America.” Ewa, draped in a green gown and holding an unlit torch, stumbles to centre stage. Instead of lingering on her panicked expression, the camera cuts to the audience: a rowdy group of drunken men, catcalling and demanding to see more flesh. This is who she’s been charged to care for, to welcome. This is Lady Liberty’s perspective on the world. This is her vision of America, and it’s not pretty.
Trapped between Emil’s embodiment of the romanticized fallacy of the American Dream and Bruno’s representation of the slavish submission to labour in the face of it, Ewa is forced to find her own way out. Tellingly, she doesn’t go to a man, but to her aunt. Previously, her uncle refused to be associated with her—as a reputable businessman, he explained that he couldn’t be connected to her kind of woman. Now, Ewa pleads with her aunt for the money to save her sister. “Is it a sin to want to survive?” she asks. Gray, never the moralizer, clearly frames the answer as no. But in the final shot, Ewa heads west, urged by Bruno to “forget about this place and forget about those things I made you do.” And it becomes clear the real question is how to live with survival. For there’s no real liberty in labour.