After a few title changes and long wait for James Gray fans (his last feature “Two Lovers” came out five years ago), the helmer’s first period project “The Immigrant” finally premiered today in Cannes with many clamoring to know whether it would deliver the goods to come out of the festival as a surefire Oscar contender for distributor Harvey Weinstein. While some I spoke to didn’t respond to the film’s deliberate pacing (I did), the majority all agreed on one thing: Marion Cotillard is sensational in it.
As Ewa, the Polish illegal immigrant of the title film forced into prostitution by Joaquin Phoenix’s character after arriving in New York, Cotillard gives a powerfully subdued performance full of hurt and anger that in my estimation ranks as her biggest achievement since playing Edith Piaf to Oscar-winning perfection in “La Vie en Rose.” Part of that lies in the fact that she had to learn Polish to take on the role and speak English with a credible Polish accent — the sort of feat that the Academy has been known to love.
“I like to create characters who have their own physical language, their own way of speaking,” Cotillard said at the film’s press conference following the screening. “When one has to learn a different language, it helps you create a persona. With Polish, in this case, you pitch your voice differently compared to French or English. It does help you build up a character that’s specific.”
“It’s a complicated language,” she continued. “I had about 20 pages in Polish and I could only understand two words [at first]. But I had a fabulous teacher and no choice.
“When you speak Polish with an accent, that would be one thing. But I had to speak Polish with no accent, so that put a lot of pressure on me. I knew when I was making a mistake. When I was doing it good, however, I had no idea of how I was doing. It was bit unsettling.”
Surprisingly, Gray revealed that he had never seen any of Cotillard’s work before meeting with her for the title role. “I have three incredibly beautiful children. Around their birth times is when I didn’t see any movies. That’s kind of the reason I never saw ‘La Vie en Rose.’
“When I met Marion, I didn’t know her work. But she threw a piece of bread in my face, over dinner, because I didn’t like some actor that she liked. I thought she had an amazing face, a kind of great silent movie face that reveals so much emotion. Plus she’s throwing bread in my face which means she has a kind of will, a strength. So if you have both of those, that’s usually a precursor to something pretty good.”
“Acting is an emotional intelligence,” he continued. “When you talk to actors, sometimes you don’t even have to watch them act. The minute you get a sense of that intelligence, you know that they can be wonderful. That was all I needed to go and write the movie for her. After that I saw everything that she had done, but by then it was all over, I was in the Cotillard camp.”