A Prisoner of the American Dream
The Immigrant is one of those films which will likely fall through the cracks. For one reason or another which perhaps only Mr. Weinstein can attest, The Immigrant saw an extremely limited advertising campaign and distribution. Given its release early in the year, it will certainly get overlooked come award season despite warranting strong consideration, especially for the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in the title roles.
The Immigrant looks like many films set in the same time period. The costumes are more understated but the colors are the same. The palette is a wash of mahogany and maroon offset by dim yellow candle and lamp light. Martin Scorsese's television drama Boardwalk Empire also takes place during the 1920's. Unlike Boardwalk which pops with a plastic artificiality having been meticulously touched up on a computer, The Immigrant looks more a like a slowly fading painting. Boardwalk's style immediately catches the attention and admiration of the viewer. The viewer thinks to themselves, where can I buy a gold pocket watch, fedora and matching three-piece suit? The visual style of The Immigrant distracts less and draws one in more to the characters.
In The Immigrant Joaquin Phoenix plays the sensitive but typically bipolar pimp Bruno, who lashes out at his girls while stroking their hand. When his new employee Ava, played by Cotillard, tells him not to touch her, Bruno screams, “I should beat you to death,” but “I want to help you.” Bruno's manic fragility, along with Ava's veiled deviousness make fascinating a less than inspired story. Ava's hatred for her male customers, as well as her pimp, is written on her face, yet her pragmatic desire to get paid is plainly stated. She tells another prostitute, “you don't take my money, ever.” Despite her apparent innocence and virtue, initially Ava would rob Bruno if given the chance. At the beginning of the film, Bruno seems to be stable and wealthy when he buys Ava from Ellis Island. It quickly becomes apparent that he is not only mentally and emotionally unstable, but one misplaced outburst away from either homelessness or imprisonment. Bruno unravels as his possessive infatuation for Ava grows. The initial hatred Ava has for Bruno devolves into a half-hearted sympathy. We can't help but feel for Bruno as the once confident Pimp becomes increasingly pathetic. At the same time we wish Ava would pack her bags and run as far away from him as possible before he does something crazy. Bruno is driven mad by the elusive desire to possess Ava, despite the obvious fact that she doesn't love him. Ava is defiant in the face of a weltering Bruno. His strong-handed pimp persona fails to mask a wimpish insecurity and male inadequacy. Early in the film Bruno attempts to woo Ava with affection and control her with fear, both of which fail.
Like many films about immigrants, life after arriving at Ellis Island seems worse than anything fathomable. Yet immigrants like Ava remain desperate not to be deported. Similar to illegal immigrants today who risk their lives crossing the border, Ava wishes only to find a better life in America and be happy. Her struggle throughout the film serves as a metaphor for how illegal immigrants continue to be mistreated. Ava tells a minister while confessing that she lives like an animal. Illegal immigrants are treated like cattle, degraded and commodified. Bruno saves Ava from being deported by bribing a police officer. He buys Ava and feels that he owns her. She sells her body working for Bruno as a prostitute like modern immigrants sell away their dignity and civil rights to employers seeking cheap labor. The greatest tragedy of the struggles of illegal immigrants is that they are vilified, despite being enslaved in a country which they idealized as a means for salvation. For an illegal immigrant, hopes of living out the American dream quickly become a haunting nightmare in which they are the victim of the ugly side of capitalism. In The Immigrant, Bruno tells Ava at his lowest point, “Forget about me, because I took everything from you and I gave you nothing.”