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Don’t give up the faith, don’t give up the hope! The American Dream is waiting for you!”
–Orlando the Magician, The Immigrant (2013)
There may be no concept more representative of the American experience than the pursuit of the “American Dream.” It’s a national mantra treated like a constitutional characteristic, when it really acts more like the promise for anyone that immigrates here—the promise that anything is possible for everyone that comes to the United States, a land where social barriers are minimal and easily surmountable if you just put in the work. It’s a concept so alluring that it’s undoubtedly responsible for much of the “melting pot” descriptor that’s assigned to the collective U.S. demographic, which still boasts the presence of multiple cultural enclaves dedicated to host practices of immigrants long passed. I’m sure certain members of my family bought into this dream as some of my European ancestors have allegedly been traced back to colonial times. You would think that would be enough to define my American experience—the dream of opportunity explaining my family’s past. However, the American Dream really does a better job of explaining my present. This is why James Gray’s 2013 passionate period piece The Immigrant is the best film to represent my American experience as it offers not only a historical glimpse into the seediness of the reality of the immigration boom to the U.S. in the early 1900s, but also a sprawling tale of the danger—not the promise—of the American Dream.
Two Stories, One Film
It is time to enter the obvious spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen The Immigrant yet, I highly suggest checking it out before reading on. The first and most obvious reason to watch the film is Marion Cotillard’s sensational performance as a Polish immigrant, Ewa. If you had any doubt that she is one of the finest actresses working today, this film should solidify it for you. She conveys mountains of emotion through micro-expressions that are meticulously cultivated and captured by Gray’s artistic hand. Joaquin Phoenix, who stars as the jaded and manipulative pimp Bruno, and Jeremy Renner, a charming and whimsical street magician named Emil (or Orlando, his stage name), are also phenomenal in their respective roles; the two actors work together like opposing chess players, subtly forcing each other’s hand across the film. As if that weren’t enough, the rich, sepia-toned cinematography by the superb Darius Khondji is exquisite, making it one of the most beautiful movies I’ve watched and placing it amongst his best work to date. Add in some intriguing, if not spectacular, dialogue and you’ve got grade-A, unsurprisingly under-loved, indie-cinema.
The Immigrant is a 1920s tale of inner-resiliency and determination in Ewa, a young woman fleeing a war-torn Europe with her sister, the latter of whom is prohibited from entering the country due to an illness she acquired on the journey over. Because Ewa was sexually assaulted on the boat over to America, she’s deemed “unpure” (“slut-shamed” for millenials) and is unable to find work or money to get her sister into the country. Through desperation, she eventually agrees to work as a prostitute after some sweet-talking from Bruno. Bruno is emotionally unstable, clingy, and ultimately not very likable; however, he claims he will help Ewa raise money to help her sister through her work as a prostitute and, for the most part, appears to follow through with this. Ewa eventually gets a glimmer of hope and romance through Emil, Bruno’s cousin. Emil moonlights as “Orlando the Magician,” often performing tricks or newly arrived immigrants on Ellis Island; he initially spots Ewa in one of his crowds and goes out of the way to pay her a compliment. After their paths cross again unexpectedly, Emil eventually pays to meet with Ewa, but only to talk to her. Emil is charming, likable, the “handsome one” in the story, and full of sweeping promises that he can help Ewa’s sister. However, careful viewers are left with the question as to exactly how sincere Emil’s promises are after Bruno reveals he has a long-standing rivalry with Emil who always manages to run away with the women Bruno falls in love with (which, as you might grow to assume, is Ewa). After a heated exchange between Bruno and Emil, a final stand down is set between Bruno and Ewa emerges in which Bruno confesses his sins to Ewa and admits he holds little feelings of worth about himself. The film concludes with one of the greatest ending shots in modern cinema that makes the entire thing worth seeing in the first place.
This plot line is fairly straightforward, set at a pace reminiscent of the Golden Age of cinema where characters move the story forward rather than external events. This is what ultimately makes The Immigrant feel like a cinematic jewel floating in a sea of formulaic movie franchises, as the latter often treats characters like things that need to be inserted into a plot rather than developed. However, this wasn’t why this film impacted me so much upon first viewing. That was because it felt like I watched two movies at once. One was the Old Hollywood/Elia Kazan-style story, while the other was brutally honest commentary on the three sides of the true American Experience—the Dream that draws us, the reality that defines us, and the history that affects exactly how much of either we choose to see and believe. Gray tells this through his three main characters: Emil/Orlando, Bruno, and Ewa, respectively.
Three Sides of the American Experience, as Seen Through The Immigrant
As I mentioned, the three sides of the film (or, as I like to think of it, the three person-metaphors) is another reason why The Immigrant feels so defining of my experiences as a human being, as I like to see the world through other people and these characters come with many layers. Emil emerges as one of the most interesting characters in the film as little of his dialogue feels as though it fits the time period. For example, he croons in one scene to Ewa that she has “a right to be happy,” line that has no place in the early 1900’s when women had approximately three rights, happiness not being one of them. While he enters the film like the promised hero, there is very little about his character that emerges as authentic. I suppose it’s an inherent nature of a levitating magician—whimsical, carrying little depth, a little too-good-to-be-true, promising “to vanish” when things get heated, and at all times trying to fool others through a sensational performance. This is ultimately what makes him feel like such a great metaphor of the American Dream—something that’s also not quite attainable but still incredibly alluring, something that you want to trust despite there not being hard evidence to back it all up, and something that feels better to believe in than, well, reality. It helps that Emil’s main job, other than wooing Ewa away from Bruno without any concrete proof that he’s a man of his word, is begging new immigrants to believe in the American Dream at the end of his magic act. After all, who could be a better spokesperson for the Dream than a magician?
Bruno fits the bill for the “American Reality” perfectly, particularly because he’s been burned by Emil, the “American Dream” metaphor before. He’s jaded, seedy, familiar with the fact that life isn’t fair, and willing to accept that colluding and corruption are necessary parts of survival. Not only this, but Bruno is aware that there are multiple barriers to social mobility that he can manipulate to his benefit, but not necessarily overcome himself; one large barrier that The Immigrant emphasizes is largely gender norms and the importance of a woman’s “purity.” As stated before, Bruno’s character traits make him much less likable than Emil, but also much more sincere. This sincerity is what really makes Bruno emerge as an antihero of the film—he’s willing to admit he’s flawed, ashamed of his sins, and committed to following through on helping Ewa save her sister despite the multiple costs it causes him and the illegal nature of many of his acts. Bruno is human, the kind of human who really crafts the American experience, albeit not the kind of human we like to pay tribute to for it.
This leaves Ewa in a central role that many of us can relate to—the immigrant who came hoping for an Emil and ending up with a Bruno. Cotillard’s performance is so open-eyed and authentic that she makes it easiest for the audience to see the film through her eyes. As a result, it’s also easy to see why Emil was such a breath of fresh air to Ewa—at her lowest point of despair, Ewa needed a promise that things could magically all fall into place and that she still had an opportunity for a better life. However, the Magician is not who saves her at the end; in fact, he ends up making things a lot worse before they get better. Despite his corruption and lies, it’s Bruno who Ewa chooses to follow in the end, even after he hits his own lowest point of despair and admits to betraying her several times.
The Privilege of Inheriting the American Dream
I can’t help but wonder if my ancestors went through a similar process of disillusionment as Ewa when the immigrated here, or if they achieved enough of what they wanted to still swear by Emil’s rhetoric. When I asked my mother how she felt about the film, she defended the magician, blamed Bruno as “the bad guy,” and criticized the director for not using Cotillard right (P.S. I never said she was a cinephile too…). When I asked my best friend who emigrated from Mexico when she was an adolescent, however, she saw the film completely differently: she didn’t trust Orlando and felt more inclined to embrace America as it really was—flawed, unfair, earnest. She liked the film for its authenticity and reality, not for the promises that characterized the American Dream.
This is what brings me to what isn’t explicitly noted in the “glory definition” of the Dream—the subtext, more reminiscent of a Protestant work ethic than patriotism, where a lack of success is explained by a failure to work hard enough. That is, if the social mobility promised in the “the land of opportunity” doesn’t occur, it’s not because of social or institutional barriers, but because the individual didn’t put in sufficient effort. However, anyone with even a basic awareness of the castes based on culture created in this “nation of immigrants” knows that such a notion is ridiculous. America is a land of opportunity, but not equal opportunity. This could be seen across many different cultures (like gender, as The Immigrant explored most), but I feel the cultural inequality is more prevalent when looking at power differentials across the racial/ethnic backgrounds of all immigrants who came here and the Native Americans who were already here in the first place. This racial inequality is even transcribed into the Constitution, the lifeblood of the nation, and stands no chance of ending when racism is institutionalized, discrimination is normalized, Republican dog whistle politics are condonable, and social inequality for non-white immigrants (past or present) and Native Americans is reinforced in news, film, and television.
However, this reality of America (the “Bruno” worldview) doesn’t seem to stick with many of the people—largely immigrants whose ancestors were white—who benefit from the “system” as it exists now. This makes sense; when one has the privilege of succeeding when the social barriers that their white ancestors created never applied to them and are told the American Dream (to paraphrase Orlando) is just within reach, it becomes easier to dismiss the concept that such barriers even exist. After all, they never experience them. This is not to insist that the American Dream is bad—it can still serve as a symbol of hope—but it’s not helpful to buy into it without also acknowledging the Reality that the Dream as it’s defined now is not equally accessible to all Americans.
The American Dream Isn’t Dead…and That’s Part of the Problem
As a blatant confession, I originally started writing a review for this movie in October of last year, entitled “Why Drumpf Supporters Need to See The Immigrant,” as I couldn’t help but feel the distorted philosophy underlying the American Dream was what was winning Drumpf the election in the first place. Drumpf’s main points, after all, were (1) “Stop punishing the wealthy” (i.e., the [largely white] people who came to this country and achieved the American Dream, like Drumpf himself); (2) “Stop rewarding the moochers” (i.e., reinforce the social and institutional barriers that keep other immigrants down to maintain privilege granted to white immigrants), (3) “Make me your Law and Order President” (i.e., allow him to not only legally oppress but isolate and punish non-white immigrants to make success even harder), and the kicker, (4) “Make Donald Drumpf Again,” (i.e., keep believing in the Dream, because it’s real and people who don’t believe it just aren’t working hard enough). In many ways, Drumpf was the perfect embodiment of how many (typically white) people like to think of the American Dream, as he never sold himself as a politician, but as a business man who (ehm) “worked” for what he earned.
As I reflect back on The Immigrant, I am always drawn back to the scene where Emil—as Orlando—is performing his show in front of a group of newly planted European immigrants (where he also meets Ewa for the first time). Funny enough, he’s an opening act for an opera singer, not the main draw. However, he sucks the audience in through a series of magic tricks that are inexplicable for a film that shows its hand at all times, such as levitating and disappearing from a locked coffin that policeman fire bullets at. The first trick—levitation—merits only golf-claps from the audience, as though they are not quite sure what to make of what they just saw. However, the second trick—dodging certain death—merits thunderous applause. Afterwards, Orlando espouses the line that I began this piece with—a plea for the audience to “not give up the faith, to not give up the hope” of the American Dream. This is the exact scene that best represents my American experience, as I feel we are still sitting in the same crowd today, still debating as to whether to keep buying into the American Dream or if it’s time to subject it to revision. We’re not chatting in a tiny room on Ellis Island anymore, but perhaps mostly on social media where, for the first time, every user really does have an equal opportunity to build a platform.
Together, we watch the same Magician perform the same tricks, with him still begging us to keep believing in him. Those in red hats gaze on, transfixed as the he levitates. They are seduced, captivated, fully converted, and fervently applauding. The rest of us stay seated, hands folded on our lap, waiting for the real show to start.
Featured Image: The Weinstein Company