Characteristic of a number of Cannes competition titles, “The Immigrant” has divided audiences, although its morning screening Friday did not receive the audible boos that greeted the credit roll of “Only God Forgives” the day before. A poll of random badge holders who saw the film suggests that it has won over more moviegoers than not.
And Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, who Gray said was “just made to be a movie star,” has received near universal praise for her role in the film as the young Polish émigré Ewa, even from “Immigrant” detractors. Harvey Weinstein will likely try to fetch Cotillard a second gold statue.
To be sure, the part was a challenge. Cotillard had 20 script pages of Polish to learn — and for her character to be believable, she had to pull it off without a discernible accent (her Slavic skills seemed to pass muster).
“There aren’t a lot of Polish words that resemble French or English,” said Cotillard in Cannes Friday. “But I had no choice. When you speak Polish with an accent that would be one thing, but I had to speak it with no accent so that put a lot of pressure on me. I could tell when I was making a mistake, but when I was doing it right, I didn’t now if I was perfect. It was a bit unsettling.”
She added: “Body language and language is part of the whole. I like to create characters that have their own way of walking and speaking. It’s true when you have to learn a new language it helps you create a new character. You position yourself differently and pitch it differently than English and French. So yes this helps to build up a character that’s different for me.”
Gray wrote the 1920s-era script with the late Richard Menello, to whom he paid an emotional tribute during a conversation with press ahead of the film’s world premiere. “He was like the ‘Human Movie Shazam,'” said Gray. “When I started writing ‘Two Lovers,’ I used him as a resource. I’d ask him for advice and he knew just everything. At the end he had helped me write that script, and he absolutely deserved a credit. But he’s gone and I miss him.”
In the film, Cotillard plays Ewa, who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) hoping to make their way in the New World. Their hopes for a smooth segue into the shores of the American dream, however, are short lived. Doctors notice Magda is coughing and immediately quarantine her for TB. Distraught that her sister has been taken away, Ewa nevertheless heads to an immigration official who inquires about her “loose morals” while on board the ship crossing and is sent to a holding area where she will likely be sent back to Europe.
Separated from her sister and frightened, she catches the attention of a man lurking in the facility (Joaquin Phoenix). Outwardly friendly and with a soft voice, he offers to help her. Bruno uses his connections — and a bribe — to whisk Ewa into Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Gray admitted that when DP Darius Khondji and he looked at “The Godfather Part II,” which was set in the same neighborhood, “we quickly realized there’s no way to show the Lower East Side of NY during that time without people going, ‘There’s The Godfather Part II.'”
Ewa slowly falls prey to Bruno’s unseemly business. He runs a Prohibition-era bar and theater. His girls wear pretty costumes and perform, but the trappings of the stage are thin veils for what is a peep show. Ewa is dependent on Bruno for money, and though her deep Catholicism nags at her conscience about her new profession — which goes beyond the peep-show stage — she sees few other initial options.
“I simply based the story on real stuff…,” said Gray. “Most of the women being exploited [in this way] were from Eastern Europe. I wanted to do a film that was historically accurate.”
While “The Immigrant” paints a bleak picture of people arriving to American shores full of hope, only to be dashed into a pitiful cycle of dependency and exploitation, Gray said he hopes the film will serve as a reminder to Americans today that immigrants have historically provided reinvention and dynamism and that subsequent waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland and Eastern Europe have been maligned much in the same way as today’s newcomers.
“I guess I’m unabashedly pro-immigration,” said Gray. “It keeps the country growing and vital and dynamic. Coming from Los Angeles, it’s easy to say it’s full of Hollywood types, but actually the city is full of Latinos who have created a really important quality to the city. All groups that have arrived [in America], have been called ‘dirty, stupid, they’re lazy.’ So when I hear people speaking about Latinos in code words, I wish I could remind them that that’s the same argument that has been made for a hundred years. Sometimes the best way to make a comment about the present is to do it with some distance so when people can see the context of history maybe they will understand it better.”