Low Life And The Nightingale
"Low Life" and "The Nightingale" were the working titles of director and writer James Gray's 2013 film "The Immigrant", which tells a hard story of life of immigrants to America in 1921. With the film's emphasis on New York City street life and on the efforts of a beautiful young woman to survive, both working titles are appropriate for the film, separately or together. The film showed at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and received a nomination for the highest award, the Palme D'Or, but is only now coming to theaters. The slow, introspective character of this film makes a large popular success unlikely.
The film begins and ends at Ellis Island. The primary character, Ewa Cybulski, (Marion Cottilard) has fled Poland with her sister, Magda, in search of a new, better life in America. At Ellis Island, Magda is quarantined for lung disease, and Ewa is about to be deported over rumors that she has proved to be a loose woman on board the ship. Ewa, a Catholic, is rescued from deportation at the last moment by a debonair Jewish man, Bruno Weiss, (Joaquin Phoenix) who offers her a place to stay and a job as a seamstress. The job soon deteriorates into work in a chorus line in which the women show themselves and, more importantly, engage in prostitution. Ewa seethes with anger but accepts her lot as a prostitute to earn the money to rescue her sister. She dislikes Bruno, a mean, despicable pimp yet strangely vulnerable and in love with her. When Eva again faces deportation at Ellis Island, she meets a cheap magician and comedian, Orlando the Magician/Emil (Jeremy Renner) who also happens to be Bruno's cousin. In an ironic, raw story, the two men compete for Ewa's affections. Ewa tries to keep focused on her life and on her goals for her sister while despising herself for her degrading circumstances, some of which she has brought upon herself. In a climactic moment of the film, Ewa goes to confession in an effort to gain forgiveness, catharsis, and a new start.
This film is a beautifully done period piece with scenes of New York slums in the Five Points area, tawdry clubs, and vulgar people. Much of the film is shot in sepia browns and grays. The movie also features large sweeping shots of Ellis Island and shows the processes the newcomers to the United States endured. Marion Cottilard plays her role with beautiful restraint and with body language, especially with the fire in her eyes. Each of the three primary characters, Ewa, Bruno, and Emil, are complex, multi-dimensional figures developed from the inside. The passion in the film is captured by the operatic score, including a cameo impersonation of the great Caruso. The plot is cumbersome and full of coincidence. It develops slowly.
In the character of Ewa, the movie emphasizes the sometimes elusive character of the American dream, as she is forced to sell her body to survive in a strange land under bad circumstances. But the film also emphasizes hope and staying true to one's goals in the middle of adversity. Each of the characters in the film have their sympathetic sides, even the dastardly pimp.
This is a thoughtful, beautiful film. It will appeal to viewers who enjoyed films such as "Once upon a time in America", "The Gangs of New York", or "Mean Streets". In its own unique way, the film captures the fascination the immigrant experience and the streets of New York continue to exert on many Americans.