Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Immigrant: Dreaming

 With its opening shot of The Statue of Liberty, its period setting, and its proclamation that The American Dream is waiting for you! one might expect The Immigrant to be a movie rife with metaphors and symbols. While one certainly can find them if they want to, they're more than likely to be unintended consequences on James Gray's part. What's remarkable about Gray's film is that it seems designed to go, from its definite setting, outward, forward, and beyond. This could easily have been a movie about finding universals in particulars, and yet, while, one could look at that way, Gray is really trying to move inward the entire time. He's not attempting to take an immigrant's story in New York during the 1920s and say this is what this means, this is what this represents. His method is really much more intimate, much more psychological, and so invested with the characters that any ideas The Immigrant might be broaching come from them, rather than the other way around. In other words, this is much less a movie about grand statements than about small, but vital gestures, time, place, pain, and the insoluble nature of conformity versus individuality.

That said, there are certainly some symbolic shots peppered throughout the film, most notably in the all-time great final image. Also of note is the dream sequence that occurs about forty minutes into the picture. The timing for the dream is vital: Ewa has just arrived at her relatives' house, and she has her first look of comfort and assurance as she's being put to bed, with her aunt comforting her that "the nightingale always sings sweetest at the darkest hour." She can dream easy now, as it seems that everything may end up okay after all. As her aunt and uncle leave, the camera slowly pans through the cozily lit room before the screen fades to black. Next we see bright light and this shot of Ewa outside, shielding her eyes from the sun, a look of happiness on her face that we haven't seen from her yet.

 Ewa is dreaming, but there is realism in the dream's emotion. It suggests a time of innocence and bliss when she was with her sister in Poland. We don't know what Ewa is smiling at until the screen cuts to this image of Madga, laying out a blanket for a picnic. The transparent, silky look of the blanket add to the scene's lyrical quality. In reality, people use thick blankets for picnics, but this is an idyllic dream of the past, a metaphor for how simple and nice the old days were. The image right after this one is a half second shot Madga looking very ghostlike. If you blink you miss it. 

Next we see Madga pouring some liquid from a glass jug. Silk blanket, glass jug, nah, this ain't real. Note the light green grass, a sign of early spring, of life, of hope. 

Cut back to Ewa, no longer shielding her face, but still smiling. She's at her most content right here.


Gray then glides his camera along the blanket and then up across Madga right up into the sky. It's the most dreamlike shot in the sequence, a camera movement more of emotion than logic. 

By going to the sky, however, he allows for a nice transition to the second part of the dream, which starts with this shot of Madga suddenly in a field, consumed by the grass almost to the point of invisibility. This is actually a pretty creepy shot, and it reminded me of a particularly haunting image from Jack Clayton's 1961 horror classic The Innocents

Cut to Ewa, looking at her, standing in shorter grass that suggests they're now being set apart. The dream has taken a striking turn. There's a sense that Ewa's idyllic past is not just ending, but literally disappearing, never to be had again. Even if she does find her sister, the sense of innocence in this scene will be gone.

When we see Madga again she's turned her back on Ewa, and is walking away. The separation between the sisters represents their current separation. The dream began with them so closely united because as she is going to sleep, Ewa is thinking she will soon be with her sister again in reality. Yet the sudden shift in the dream also suggests that somewhere in her subconscious she knows that things aren't going to be so easy yet. And sure enough, when she wakes up, she learns her uncle has turned her in due to her controversial behavior on the boat from Europe to New York.

The dream really starts to get unsettling here, as we get a slow motion shot of Ewa running after Madga before the soundtrack, which had been slow and peaceful, and a little mysterious up to this point, is dominated by what sounds like  horse hooves pounding against the ground.

The summertime and the brightly lit field is suddenly replaced by a fleeting shot of a dour, barren landscape in winter, at the center of which is a dead tree, the tree of death. Spring, hope, life, are all gone.                                                

 The final shot tells us where those horse hooves were coming from. The image is also fleeting, maybe about a second, but its impact is startling. Ewa's dream, already having taken a turn for the worse, has suddenly become a nightmare. Ewa has previously explained that she was forced to see the decapitation of her parents, and this soldier, saber in hand, likely is connected to that awful memory. 


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