Credit: NEON
by Caleb Hammond Featured Film

Anora — Sean Baker [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 27, 2024

Following Red Rocket in 2021, Anora marks Sean Baker’s second straight feature in competition at Cannes, and this one comes with reports of packed screenings with overflow press watching seated on aisle stairs — anything to catch a glimpse of the buzzy title. Its programming slot in the latter half of the festival delivered a jolt of energy to sleep-deprived fest-goers who responded positively to its joyous montages and slapstick hijinks, a feeling shared by the jury, which also handed the film the coveted Palme d’Or.

Sporting a suitably Baker-esque logline, Anora follows stripper and occasional sex worker Ani (Mikey Madison) as she endures the inevitable backlash that comes with falling in love with and marrying the uber-wealthy son of a Russian oligarch. Told in three distinct parts, the first hour plays out like a fairytale rom-com in which Ani begins performing off-the-books sex visits to Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), a young Russian who seems to have nothing but free time and copious amounts of cash to blow. He plays video games, smokes weed, and takes surprise trips to Vegas on his family’s private jet. When he tells Ani, “I’m always happy,” in broken English, you believe him because why wouldn’t he be? Eydelshteyn’s physical performance reflects this levity and is built for laughs: he does a little backward cartwheel when undressing for sex; he slides in his socks when answering his doorbell. It’s easy to see why Ani would fall for his charm. The only thing that can get Ivan down is that his family back in Russia expects him to return there soon to begin work at his father’s company. He’s the worst kind of nepo baby: an ungrateful one.

Between Rich Kids of the Internet, Lauren Greenfield’s photography work, and Gossip Girl, peering into the lives of the young and rich has always held immense audience appeal, and understanding this, the first hour of Anora actively trades in wealth porn. It does so intentionally, knowing that once the audience is subsumed into the glitz and glamor, it will be a small leap to understand how Ani is too. (After the scuzzy 16mm of Red Rocket, cinematographer Drew Daniels returns to lens Anora with the clarity of 35mm, continuing a mini-trend where Baker’s films alternate from the lo-fi to a cleaner image.) When the rug is pulled out from under her rather abruptly, we receive it with understanding in place of judgment. At the strip club Headquarters, when Ani’s workplace enemy Diamond (Lindsey Normington) tells her she gives her and Ivan’s new marriage two weeks, we know she’s likely not wrong — and somewhere deep down, Ani might as well — but neither we nor she wants that to be the case. It’s the noble move to root for young love, no matter how tenuous or outright irresponsible a given union is.

What happens after Ivan and Ani’s ill-advised Vegas wedding plays out almost like a thought exercise: What would actually happen next in the age-old rom-com story involving a wealthy person and someone from a lower economic tier getting married? Well, in all likelihood, the parents and anyone else invested in their lives would do just about anything to stop it. That level of wealth can’t be jeopardized, under any circumstance. So, the glitzy montage-heavy first act gets traded for some old-school slapstick goodness. This pivot is a testament to Baker’s directing and editing prowess at this stage in his career, demonstrating that he is able to stage and cut this tricky style of comedy together so well. Three goons enter the picture: Toros (Baker regular Karren Karagulian), Garnick (Vache Tovmasyan), and Igor (Yura Borisov), who are all tasked by Ivan’s parents with finding out if the marriage rumors are true, and to promptly get the whole thing annulled if so. Ivan treats these three with casual annoyance and outright disrespect, but seems actually terrified at the prospect of his no-nonsense parents coming to town. So he does what any immature manchild does when trouble finds them: he splits, literally running out of his gated home, leaving new bride Ani alone with the three stooges for the rest of the film’s runtime.

This extended middle section, in which the hapless quartet attempts to track down Ivan, has already been compared to Safdie brothers’ films Good Time or Uncut Gems, and there is some of that energy here where a simple point A to point B is spoiled with constant detours. But Anora leans more toward the outright silly than those darker features. It’s also fitting that they visit Coney Island restaurant Tatiana, as that Russian nightclub featured prominently in Jonathan Ames’ HBO series Bored to Death, and both Anora and that series carry a humanist point of view that states there are no real bad guys, reveling in casual banter between seemingly opposing parties, whether it’s kidnapper and the kidnapped, or something similar.

Eydelshteyn’s performance as Ivan is already lauded, and for good reason, but Borisov as Igor delivers the more subdued, impressive performance. He plays a quiet young Russian who wants Ani to notice him, but is either too shy or proud to go very far to make that happen, though his sly sense of humor notably peaks through (the impression isn’t unlike that of Serbian NBA MVP Nikola Jokić in that way). Without spoiling the finale, suffice it to say it’s telling who recedes to the background and who moves to the fore in the film’s final moments.

At 138 minutes, Anora is Baker’s longest film, and the easy criticism to lodge here is that you can feel that. But like fellow Cannes title Eephus, which needs you to feel the length of a full baseball game, Anora asks that viewers sit in the emotional weight of this long day that Ani and others are put through when a bratty kid decides to run from the problems he himself has created. It’s a choice that makes the unexpectedly subdued final sequence and the sure-to-be-divisive closing shot all the more necessary and emotionally resonant.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.