CANNES, France (AP) — Academy award-winner Marion Cotillard gave her all and even learned another language to play a Polish woman struggling with the realities of 1920s New York in James Gray’s terse offering, “The Immigrant.”
The gritty drama, which premieres Friday at the Cannes Film Festival and is competing for the Palme d’Or, was filmed in part on the almost mythical Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants stepped off the boat to America in search of a better life, captured with stark beauty by cinematographer Darius Khondji.
The initial American dream of Cotillard’s character, Ewa, to rejoin her uncle and aunt and start a family with a “good man” is quickly dashed. Her sister winds up quarantined in an immigrant hospital and she herself is taken under the wing of Bruno, a louche cabaret manager who’s prone to violent outbursts.
Bruno, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a melodramatic performance that has divided critics, is attracted by Ewa’s beauty and forces her into his cabaret outfit, which also serves as a brothel. She becomes the most prized of his “doves,” the sickening name he gives to his dancing girls.
But what might have been a predicable pimp-prostitute tale is given a twist by the human complexity of Gray’s characters: neither fully good nor fully bad.
Cotillard’s performance has already garnered attention from critics for the intensity of her performance and for learning Polish for the role — some 20 pages of the film script were in that language, she noted. The French actress admitted that while speaking a foreign language was tough, it ultimately spurred her on artistically.
“The language creates everything. I like to create characters that have their own approach, their own physical language, their own voice. When you have a different language to learn, it somehow helps to create that,” she said.
She called speaking Polish her “biggest challenge,” as even when she was happy with a scene, “I had no way of knowing if it was perfect. It was very unsettling.”
Cotillard is becoming something of a polyglot having also acted in English, French and Italian in this year’s “Blood Ties.”
“The Immigrant”’s third key character could be said to be Ellis Island itself, the former immigrant gateway in Upper New York Bay.
Khondji, who worked on last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Amour,” defined the film with his breathtaking evocations of Ellis Island and a grimy New York, with references that harked to “The Godfather: Part II.”
“There have been so few films actually shot in Ellis Island … this kind of mythical, immigration station where the entire world came to the United States,” said Gray, who added that 40 percent of Americans have an ancestor who passed through the island at the beginning of the 20th century.
But the covetable location presented its fair share of obstacles, as the director conceded after the screening.
“One of the things that you forget is that … it’s a museum. It’s open virtually 365 days a year, and it will not close down for you, so all that stuff … was shot at night actually with huge cranes holding these big 10,000-watt lights, blasting light through the window. If I knew what it would take I’m not sure I would have done it again.”
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP