Both films are set roughly two years apart in the early 1920s.
Both are about young women looking and hoping for a better life in a new city.
Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish gal who immigrates to America and lands in New York.
Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) is a French village girl who leaves family and love behind to move to Paris.
Both are considered women of low morals before their cinematic stories even begin, low morals, which, put them both smack-dab in the middle of two no-goodnik men.
Chaplin begins Marie’s tale by having her look out of a window, longing for and dreaming of love and life.
This section of the movie is the only time Marie seems like a real person with real needs and wants. She eventually leaves love behind to embrace life on her own.
The scene where she boards the last train to Paris is probably my favorite in the movie. She seems like she’s going to take on the world.
Once she reaches the city, however, Marie’s personality vanishes. She’s now a bauble, a bright young thing, a kept woman. She’s an empty shell despite the fact that her keeper is the debonair Adolphe Menjou.
As Adam Cook has pointed out in two of his pieces on/relating to The Immigrant, mirrors and windows are integral to the picture.
“There’s a rhyming going on, isn’t there? With recurring bifurcated compositions at the confessional and again at the end with the mirror and window. There’s another one too. It establishes that Bruno and Ewa are on separate paths.”
“A devout Catholic, Ewa suffers intense spiritual anguish from her involvement with Bruno and subsequent prostitution. Arrested for soliciting and returned to Ellis Island, where she is tossed into a filthy cell, Ewa peers through her cell door and sees a procession of cloaked figures with candles passing by. Whether a literal event or a miraculous vision, the sight triggers an epiphany within this desperate and abused woman: her dormant faith gives her something to latch onto in this harsh and unforgiving milieu.”
Unlike Ewa, Marie is not a prisoner of anything except her moral standing. Menjou’s Pierre Revel is her keeper, not her captor, and her childhood boy-toy, Jean (Carl Miller) has no hold over her whatsoever. In Marie’s apartment, which, in my mind, is the visual center of the picture, the space feels open, airy and elegant. Neither Marie nor the rooms feel claustrophobic or dominated with or without Adolphe Menjou there. In fact, Chaplin frames the couple as if they’re on an even-playing field. Yet, she’s blasé about her freedom and seems to intentionally avoid personal reflection (literally and figuratively) or even meditation about where her future is going.
She even breaks a heel.
Other than that first moment of the movie, this is the only time Marie looks out the window again. And why does she leave the comfortable confines of her apartment? To get her pearl necklace back from a homeless man. The idea of her longing and hoping for a good future is laughable.
Though Ewa isn’t technically imprisoned by the man who manipulates her into prostitution, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), or any of the other people she’s with, she’s certainly physically oppressed by her surroundings, beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji as they may be. During the first section of the movie, Ewa is frequently framed against imposing doorways and really tight, confining spaces. Ewa stays at the apartment of another prostitute and scarcely moves beyond 10% of the area. She walks from the doorway to her bed and almost never sets foot in the rest of the flat, preferring to crouch like a mouse alongside the wall.
Look at this scene where Bruno, Ewa and a couple of the prostitutes return home after a night of partying:
The prostitutes and Bruno trot in like they own the place, completely comfortable with the environment and each other. They’re in full view of the window whereas Ewa slowly steps inside, removes her coat with most of her body out of frame and skittishly walks to her corner to avoid Bruno’s eager conversation. It might seem like she’s apologizing for her existence, but she’s actually just trying to keep her head up and eyes on the prize. When reality sets in and she accepts her fate and what she must do to help her sister leave Ellis Island, the city space becomes a lot more open and welcoming to her.
If Ewa wasn’t such a determined and strong presence, I’d probably hate The Immigrant. I don’t think a female character has faced this level of manipulation on screen since Rosemary’s Baby. However, Ewa is always looking forward, always looking to the future. The numerous shots of her looking in mirrors and out of windows serve as constant reminders of her humanity and strength. She has faith in herself because she has faith in God. Nothing anyone can do to her body will ever change that.
Though Marie and Ewa are two different types of prostitutes, Marie being high-end and Ewa being at the bottom of the totem pole, both women look the same in society’s and cinema’s eyes. They’re women of low morals, those devilish vixens who steal husbands and ruin young men with red lipstick and fishnet stockings. It’s really sad that our idea of good and bad women hasn’t really changed that much since Chaplin’s day. Sadder still, that there are nearly 30 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. I can only hope that some of them meet the same happy ending Ewa and Marie did in their separate cinematic universes. Whether the victims are men, children or women of low-means or low morals, no one deserves to have their life, love or liberty taken away from them.