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Sean Baker Anora Review


Anora | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Anora | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Fools Russia In: Baker’s Bangin’ Screwball Comedy

At this point in his career, filmmaker Sean Baker seems to have covered all the major facets of sex work experiences. Surprisingly, and quite delightfully, he’s managed to use his favorite motifs to create an exceptional screwball comedy with Anora. An exotic dancer in New York who moonlights as a sex worker, when it’s convenient, is the titular focus, played with exceptional finesse by Mikey Madison. As we’ve become accustomed to in Baker’s filmography, there’s a lot of heart and grit bolstering the experiences of his characters, who are often confronting themselves through the unlikeliest of emotional alliances. There’s an inherent anxiety underlining the scenario of his latest film, which heightens the dramatic stakes even when it seems it’s being ridiculous. But by now Baker has, with expert precision, honed the ability to depict that strange, unique throb of human experience where heartache, desperation, benevolence and joy coexist all at the same time.

Ani (Madison) works as an exotic dancer at a NYC strip club called Headquarters. Though young, she seems to have established some semblance of tenure, sharing a warm, if caustic rapport with her boss and most of her colleagues. A high rolling client named Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn) requests a dancer who speaks Russian one night, which Ani does, though chooses not to speak due to her accent. Ivan, the son of a wealthy oligarch, is expected to return to Russia and begin working for his father, and so desires to sew his wild oats one last time as a free twenty-one-year-old. He’s taken with Anora and hires her services for an entire week, flying to Las Vegas with his posse. But revelry turns to commiseration and imagining a way for Ivan to remain in the US, they decide to get married. However, once Ivan’s handlers, led by Toros (Karren Karagulian) catch wind of this situation, all hell breaks loose, and Ivan’s irate parents suddenly arrive on their private plane to take control.

Madison proves to be a ferocious force of nature as Ani, her resolute brazenness a logical reason to explain how Russian heavies are attracted to such willful tenacity. Baker gives her a role which allows her to step out from the shadow of high profile psychotic murderers she’s known for (as in 2022’s Scream and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, 2019). Foul mouthed and combative but also quite sweet and diplomatic, we eventually learn the emotional sacrifice she’s paid in the third act when we finally get a peek behind her masquerade, conditioned by her line of work to interact with men in only one way, and thus, being unable to determine when intimacy is authentic or not. Baker’s casting of Yura Borisov (Compartment No. 6, 2021) as the henchman Igor is equally sublime, clearly in awe of Ani on the sidelines, existing on the lowest tier of the power hierarchy for those he serves. But besides Madison, the real scene stealer is Karren Karagulian (a Baker regular) as Toros, responsible for watching over the wayward Ivan.

What starts out as a modern, realistic version of Pretty Woman (1990), especially compared to something like Ken Russell’s ‘response’ to this narrative, 1991’s Whore, cascades into a manic take on the myth of Psyche and Eros. Baker takes a moment in the film to outline what the name Anora means, which includes ‘light,’ ‘honor’ and ‘grace.’ But it’s also, notably, a derivation of Uzbek for ‘pomegranate,’ which also suggests, like Persephone, she’s a woman caught between two worlds—allowed to experience normalcy but required to serve her time in a netherworld.

Sean Baker Anora Review

Of course, a dangerous sense of fatalism enhancing the cosmic ballet of mishaps recalls the Safdie Bros., but Anora doesn’t ever feel like a flop who’s floundering around on a sleazy merry-go-round, instead representing the flinty ingredient who just might come out on top. Just maybe. Instead, there’s a kinship with Hollywood’s screwball comedies of the 1930s, where an unlikely romance blossoms in the flurries of a rough and tumble escapade, like the beautiful zaniness of Bringing Up Baby (1938) or classic divorce scenario in The Awful Truth (1937), except equipped with the foul-mouthed glory and sexual fervor inherent to reality. One wonders how Stanley Cavell might have processed something like Anora, which despite the inescapable degradation its heroine must overcome, suggests, implicitly, there remains the possibility of intimate connection as a redemptive power even in the most hopeless of circumstances.

Baker, who edited the film as per his usual, re-teams with his Red Rocket (2021) DP Drew Daniels in his return to New York following 2008’s Prince of Broadway (2008). Location also serves as its own character in Baker’s work, with Coney Island and Las Vegas prominent in a guttered mise-en-scene which feels more matter-of-fact than desolate or miserable. Much like with 2015’s exceptional Tangerine, Baker mounts a steep precipice with his characters to deposit them within a crescendo of connection. It’s a film which earns a hard won sense of solace by revealing Anora’s vulnerability to herself. As Cary Grant states in The Philadelphia Story (1940), “to hardly know him is to know him well,” a complex sentiment we’re guided into comprehending for Anora and Igor.

Reviewed on May 21st at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 139 Mins


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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