Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Immigrant: Supporting Players

Most of the character discussions of The Immigrant center around Ewa, Bruno, and Emil, and rightfully so. They--particularly Bruno and Ewa--are incredibly rich and immersive individuals, worthy of the utmost amount of consideration. They also happen to collectively take up majority of the movie's running time. But 
The Immigrant is also full of other characters, most of whom only get a scene or two, but are nonetheless treated with reverence and care by director James Gray.

Three standouts that on a surface glance seem to merely serve the plot end up being, at least for me, small but important contributions to The Immigrant's power. 

The first is Leo Straub, the physically and characteristically mousy young man who is coerced by his father into sleeping with a woman because he's not manly enough. They go to Bruno seeking his help, and after Bruno whispers that he can provide a male if needed (which goes to show that, even in the stringent 1920s, Bruno makes no exceptions when it comes to obtaining money), the father indicates that he wants Ewa for his son. Meanwhile Leo stands their feebly, and the viewer can't help but feel a little sorry for him. Cut to Bruno's apartment, where Ewa, asleep, is awakened by Bruno, who has brought Leo with him. Leo, terribly shy, tells her that he's here on his father's accord, not his. It's a double act of coercion, and Ewa, just as afraid as Leo is (though her fear is more connected to morality), resists his touch. At this point Bruno comes in and, leaning close, delivers some of the film's most crucial lines: "I don't want you to do this, either," he says in a hushed voice. "But it's not my decision." This defines much of Bruno's character. He's an ethical human being in that he understands and cares about human dignity, but he doesn't hold it high enough to keep from subjecting others to degrading experiences in order maintain his position and cash-flow. It is almost as if he's paradoxically embarrassed by his treatment of others yet also prideful of his image as a businessman who gets people what they want and when they want it. Then, in one of the film's truly great lines, he tells her "the truth is, we both know you're going to see this boy, because your sister's well-being is more important than your own." But then he very clearly says, "if you do not wish to see this boy, tell me now. I'll send him away." This is crucial. By presenting Leo as so reticent, Gray is making Ewa's descent into prostitution all the more tragic. She actually has a choice here in the sense that Leo, rather than the red-blooded male one would expect, is so nervous that he'd probably be partly relieved if Ewa said no. Bruno knows this, as does Ewa, yet she still cannot say no. It's as if her survival instinct has kicked in, saying here, only money matters. This greatness of the sequence partly has to do with the fact that the viewer gets their first really good look at Bruno as both human and businessman-and under Gray's careful writing, it happens almost simultaneously. What makes it a truly unique and original scene though is the fact that Gray is subverting the ways in which coercion usually works. A lesser script would have the double act of coercion concern a ferocious male forcing himself onto Ewa, and Ewa being pushed by her employer to take part in the act. Instead, Gray makes the coercion on Leo's part due to his shallow father, and on Ewa's a result of a deeper principle built around family, love, and survival. 

The second character is the guard who puts Ewa in her room after her uncle reports her to the authorities. In a movie sympathetic with immigrants (though, it should be made clear, this is not a film about immigrants, or immigration, but about the immigrant, the humanism in an individual person whose circumstances at this particular time in her life pertain to trying to make it from Poland to America) it would have been easy to show the authorities as harsh and one-sided, but in this scene Gray once again demonstrates his care and attention to the small and unexpected moments. Ewa asks if she can see her sister, and while the guard says no, his tone is gentle and sympathetic, his eyes kind; he views Ewa as a human person, but he also knows he has a job to keep, rules to follow. He's the one who informs her about Emil's show, and, though he knows he can't personally help her, he tells her that it if she looks better for the board it helps (this results in one of my favorite moments in the movie when Ewa, looking in an old, faded mirror, pricks her finger and rubs blood into her checks for color, and on her lips for lipstick). The guard's role is small, but while that scene could have easily just been a disposable generator for the plot, I noticed something more in it, and I feel that was Gray's intention. Despite Ewa's harrowing experiences, she encounters good people who nonetheless are at the hands of a system. But Gray wants us to notice them just as much as he wants us to feel the cruelty of the system, and that he does reflects his profound and carefully articulated sense of humanism. 

Lastly there is Belva, one of the burlesque members who relies heavily on Bruno and subtly blames Ewa for Bruno's run-ins with the law. There's not a lot to say about her, but she still serves a few interesting functions in the film. Firstly, she represents the kind of woman that Ewa is desperately trying not to become, namely someone who depends on Bruno to the point of a kind of idolization. "At least I don't kiss the feet of the man who makes me feel like a piece of trash," Ewa says during a key conversation with Belva late in the movie. She may rely on Bruno for money, but, unlike Belva, she'll also do anything to escape his clutches. Also, it's never quite clear what Belva's (or any of the other show members) relationship is with Bruno, but one gathers that she's vying for his affection, and then begrudges Ewa when she realizes Bruno might be in love with her. 

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