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Cannes 2024 review: ‘Anora’ – Sean Baker’s kinetic take on 'Pretty Woman' is fantastic

Anora Copyright Cannes Film Festival - NEON
Copyright Cannes Film Festival - NEON
By David Mouriquand
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The director of 'Tangerine', 'The Florida Project' and 'Red Rocket' delivers a brilliant rollercoaster ride - a modern fairytale that doubles as a gut-punch tragedy.


Anora, Sean Baker’s latest film following 2021's Cannes-premiering Red Rocket, is a raucous blast - a kinetic New York City screwball comedy that shares the chaotic energy of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems and disguises a darker heart. It’s a knockout.

Tempting though it is to finish the review there, with the added substantial bonus that Baker makes Take That co-exist with t.A.T.u. (don’t pretend you’re not sold on this by now), here’s some context.

The title character, an exotic dancer and sometime escort who prefers to be called Ani (Mikey Madison), works in a strip club in Manhattan. Being of Uzbek descent, she can understand Russian and is tasked with entertaining a Moskal one night. A sweaty oligarch? A menacing thug? No, a wiry 21-year-old with a wild mop of hair to rival Timothée Chalamet’s wildest perms. His name’s Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), and acts like a lovable buffoon: generous, goofy and very, very excitable.

“I’m always happy,” he says. And so he should be. He spends his time throwing parties and living off his dad’s money.

Their time together, after a house call to his luxury pad, culminates in a proposal: Ivan asks Ani to be his “horny girlfriend for the week”, in exchange for $15k. She’s thrilled about the idea and takes a genuine shine to Ivan, who showers her with gifts, trips to exclusive clubs, and a wild jaunt to Vegas. It’s there that the smitten adolescent proposes marriage. He doesn’t want to go back to Russia and work in his father’s company, so a shotgun wedding is his Green Card-nabbing ticket out of that privileged pickle. Ani gleefully accepts and moves in with him.

“You’ve hit the lotto, bitch,” says one of her friends at the strip club.

Except that every fairytale needs a villain. In this case, the disruptors are Ivan’s ultra rich parents, who are shamed by their son marrying a “whore”. They hit DEFCON 1 by setting things in motion so that the marriage gets annulled quick sharp, in time for their arrival in New York. This involves a motley crew showing up at the luxury pad to reason with Ivan. He hilariously does a runner, leaving Ani with Armenian fixer Toros (Karren Karagulian) and his two stooges Garnick (Vache Towmasyan) and Igor (Compartment No. 6 ’s Yura Borisov).

The modern Cinderella story turns into a no-brakes chase film where an angry Pretty Woman is lumped with the Marx Brothers to locate Ivan. From Brighton Beach to Coney Island, Ani is left to fight a lonely battle for a union she believes is grounded in genuine affection.

Madison, previously seen in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Scream, is a revelation here. She owns every single scene, nailing the Brooklyn accent and giving a full-throttle performance that should propel her to A-list stardom. Eydelshteyn is also excellent, and manages to convincingly win you over with his erratic Tigger act which quickly changes to reveal Prince Charming to be an imbecilic and spoiled brat. His character is paralleled with the taciturn and Francophonically-challenged “gopnik” Igor, who Borisov injects with manhandling menace but enough sympathy to make you realise he’s also doing a job – whether he likes it or not.

The wild ride they all embark on is non-stop thrilling, with Baker never losing sight of his familiar preoccupation with sex work, grifters and thwarted aspirations. His exploration of the American Dream, seen through the prism of empathy linked to class divisions and entitlement, leads to a slight but effective commentary on how the good life is something often given to those who deserve it the least. This culminates in a disarming final scene that hinges on a moment of bittersweet connection, which makes you wonder whether this chaotic rollercoaster was actually a tragedy hidden in plain sight, about how those who society chooses to marginalize will always be set up to fail.

And while Anora can be occasionally frustrating in spots – especially with the mildly underwhelming performance of Darya Ekamasova as Ivan’s ruthless mother – the vibrant and 70s-echoing visuals more than make up for any niggles, thanks to the excellent work by cinematographer Drew Daniels and his anamorphic lenses.

Does it have what it takes to win a prize this year – possibly even the Palme? That’s a resounding “toush” from us, Sean Baker. Sorry, “touché”.

Anora premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in Competition.

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