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Steely Cotillard shines in 'The Immigrant'

Actress Marion Cotillard arrives for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)Actress Marion Cotillard arrives for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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."

Actors Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner depart the screening of her film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision/AP)Actors Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner depart the screening of her film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision/AP)

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.

Actress Marion Cotillard departs the screening of her film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision/AP)Actress Marion Cotillard departs the screening of her film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision/AP)

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.

Model Bianca Balti poses for photographers as she arrives for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)Model Bianca Balti poses for photographers as she arrives for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

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.

Model Izabel Goulart arrives for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)Model Izabel Goulart arrives for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

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.

Actress Clotilde Courau, left, and designer Peter Dundas arrive for the screening of the film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)Actress Clotilde Courau, left, and designer Peter Dundas arrive for the screening of the film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

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.

From 2nd left, director of photography Philippe Rousselot, actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Victoria Abril arrive for the screening of the film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)From 2nd left, director of photography Philippe Rousselot, actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Victoria Abril arrive for the screening of the film The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

"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.

Actress Marion Cotillard, right, and actor Jeremy Renner arrive for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)Actress Marion Cotillard, right, and actor Jeremy Renner arrive for the screening of The Immigrant at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

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."

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Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP