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Cannes: Oscar-Worthy Cotillard and Director Gray Talk Divisive 'The Immigrant'

Thompson on Hollywood By Brian Brooks | Thompson on Hollywood May 25, 2013 at 3:51PM

Characteristic of a number of Cannes competition titles, "The Immigrant" has divided audiences though its morning screening Friday did not receive the audible Boos that greeted the credit roll of "Only God Forgives" the day prior. An unscientific poll of random inquiries by badge holders here who have seen the film suggests that it has won over more moviegoers than not.

Cotillard and Phoenix in 'The Immigrant'
Cotillard and Phoenix in 'The Immigrant'

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."

This article is related to: The Immigrant, James Gray, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner, Joaquin Phoenix

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.