On ‘Not Being Nothing’: Post-ironic Melodrama in James Gray’s “The Immigrant”


  • Simone Francescato




James Gray, The Immigrant, migration cinema, post-irony, melodrama


This essay analyzes James Gray’s The Immigrant (2013) discussing it as an instance of post-ironic melodrama (Włodek 2017) aimed at recovering the purity shown by this genre in the early phases of cinematic history. The essay argues that, although the movie pays evident homage to pre-classic silent-era melodramas, it also destabilizes the genre’s conventions by resorting to a particular use of the mise-en-scène and characterization. This directorial choice allows the film to retain pathos without eschewing ambivalence and indeterminacy, finally contributing to produce a complex representation of immigrants’ experience as well as a rather bleak portrait of the American Dream.


Alpert, Robert. “The Films of James Gray: Old Testament Narratives.” Senses of Cinema (December 2012). http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/feature-articles/the-films-of-james-gray-old-testament-narratives/. All websites last visited on 16/02/2021.

Álvarez López, Cristina. “Capitalism, Otherness and the American Dream: James Gray’s The Immigrant.” Screen Education 89 (2018): 122-128.

Belton, John. “Silent Film Melodrama.” American Cinema/American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 125-141.

Biskupski, M. B. B. “The Immigrant” (film review). Journal of American Ethnic History 35.3 (2016): 115-117.

Brody, Richard. “James Gray’s Overwhelming New Movie.” The New Yorker 16 May 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/james-grays-overwhelming-new-movie.

Chaplin, Charlie. The Immigrant. 1917.

Cimino, Eric C. “The Travelers’ Aid Society: Moral Reform and Social Work in New York City, 1907-1916.” New York History 97.1 (2016): 34-54.

Collins, Jim. “Genericity in the ‘90s: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Edited by Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins. New York: Routledge, 1993. 242–263.

Douchet, Jean. “James Gray: The Art of Thought.” Conversations with James Gray. Edited by David Frenckel. Paris: Synecdoche, 2012. 12-15.

Ebiri, Bilge. “James Gray: American Cinema’s Secret Jewel.” Vulture 3 June 2014. http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/james-gray-american-cinemas-worst-kept-secret.html.

Edison, Thomas. Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island. 1903. https://www.loc.gov/item/00694367/.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations of the Family Melodrama.” Home is Where the Heat Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Edited by Christine Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987. 43-69.

Flores, Benjamin. Le cinéma néoclassique hollywoodien. La Madeleine: LettMotif, 2018.

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. “The Immigrant, Hollywood and Human Trafficking—The Immigrant (2013).” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14.3 (2015): 455-457.

Gledhill, Christine. “Rethinking Genre.” Reinventing Film Studies. Edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. London: Arnold, 2000. 221-243.

---. “The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation.” Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Edited by Christine Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987. 5-39.

Gnaba, Sami. “The Immigrant: il était une fois en Amérique/L’immigrante.” Séquences: la revue de cinéma 291 (2014): 50-51.

Gray, James. Ad Astra. 2019.

---. The Immigrant. 2013.

---. The Lost City of Z. 2016.

---. Two Lovers. 2008.

Hamel, Jean-François. “L’envers du décor/The Immigrant de James Gray, 2013, États-Unis, 117 min.” Ciné-Bulles 32.3 (2014): 48.

Hanich, Julian. “Reflecting on Reflections: Cinema’s Complex Mirror Shots.” Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty. Edited by Martine Beugnet, Allan Cameron and Arild Fetveit. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. 131-156.

Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2013.

“James Gray Interview For ‘The Immigrant.’” Flicks and Bits 23 May 2013. https://web.archive.org/web/20130619005807/http:/www.flicksandbits.com/2013/05/23/james-gray-interview-for-the-immigrant/48113/.

Jeng, Jonah. “Of Immigrants and the City: A James Gray Retrospective.” Paste Magazine 20 April 2017. https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/james-gray/of-immigrants-and-the-city-a-james-gray-retrospect/.

Joselit, Jenna W. Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900-1940. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kelsey, Colleen. “James Gray’s Immigrant Story.” Interview Magazine 16 May 2014. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/james-grays-immigrant-story.

Kilday, Gregg. “Cannes: James Gray on The Immigrant, Marion Cotillard and Returning to the Fest (Q&A).” The Hollywood Reporter 21 May 2013. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cannes-james-gray-immigrant-marion-526204.

Leigh Davies, Morgan. “Sin and Redemption in The Immigrant.” Bright Wall/Dark Room 78 (2014). https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2019/12/11/james-gray-the-immigrant-2014/.

“Marion Cotillard and James Gray. The Immigrant.” female.com.au 11 September 2014. https://www.female.com.au/marion-cotillard-the-immigrant.htm.

Merritt, Russell. “Melodrama: Postmortem for a Phantom Genre.” Wide Angle 5.3 (1983): 24-31.

Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. 1977. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Mintzer, Jordan. “Foreword.” Conversations with James Gray. Edited by David Frenckel. Paris: Synecdoche, 2012. 9-11.

Mitry, Jean. Esthétique et psychologie du cinéma, vol. 2. Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1965.

Ng, David. “The Immigrant: James Gray on Puccini and Other Opera Influences.” Los Angeles Times 12 May 2014. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-the-immigrant-james-gray-on-puccini-and-other-opera-influences-20140512-story.html.

Petit, Samuel. “Darius Khondji et James Gray: The Immigrant.” Cinematheque 22 March 2017. https://www.cinematheque.fr/article/1008.html.

Salazar, Francisco. “Opera Meets Film: How James Gray Explores Puccini’s Heroines in The Immigrant.” Operawire 19 April 2018. https://operawire.com/opera-meets-film-how-james-gray-explores-puccinis-heroines-in-the-immigrant/.

Scott, Anthony Oliver. “Auteur Who’s Ripe for French Discovery.” The New York Times 21 May 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/movies/21scott.html.

Stewart, Michael. “The Enduring Reach of Melodrama in Contemporary Film and Culture.” Genre Trajectories. Edited by Garin Dowd and Natalia Rulyova. Palgrave Macmillan: London, 2015. 165-182.

Torner, Evan. “Nature and Adventure in Die Jagd nach dem Schatz der Nibelungen.” The Middle Ages on Television: Critical Essays. Edited by Meriem Pagès and Karlyn Kinane. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 78-98.

Weston, Hillary. “Director James Gray on his Stunning Period Drama, The Immigrant.” 7 April 2015. https://bbook.com/film/james-gray-immigrant/.

Włodek, Patrycja. “Postironia i trzy twarze melodramatu” [“Post-irony and Three Faces of Melodrama”]. Kwartalnik Filmowy 100 (2017): 222-23.






Articles: Special Section