Almost Always Quietly Heartbreaking

An early look at a Palme d’Or candidate

It seems there’s not a single critic at Cannes immune to the charms of Sean Baker’s Anora. The raunchy tragicomedy features a star-making performance from Mikey Madison who, following turns in Scream (2022) and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), plays the titular role with acerbic vigour and honed panache. Ani, as she prefers to be called, is keen to downplay her Uzbekistani roots, until they land her in the lap of Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), a wealthy 21-year-old kid who lavishes her with extravagant tips and encourages her to speak Russian. Ivan, a bouncing, wiry, mop-haired stoner, is immediately taken by Ani, who compliments his anastrophic English and introduces him to slower sex. “I think I love you,” he blurts, still inside her.

An erotic dancer by trade, Ani begins to picture an alternate life for herself through the lens of Ivan’s riches. We watch her negotiate her obligations to HQ, the Manhattan strip club where she’s employed, struggling to book time off and fighting with other aggressive, fiercely competitive dancers. So when Ivan asks her – while they’re loved up and drugged up in bed together in Las Vegas – to marry him, the fantasy begins to crystallise.

The pair wed in matching beige finery: Ivan in a suit jacket over his bare chest (save for a couple of silver necklaces) and Ani wearing a silky nude corset and ripped denim cutoffs. This sequence, as well as the movie’s nudity-heavy opening scene, is set to a remix of Take That’s ‘Greatest Day’, a 2008 single that Baker apparently chose by happenstance, punching the words into Spotify and listening to whatever came up. This song choice serves to emphasise the flighty, fantastical elements of Ani’s Pretty Woman experience, but also seems to underscore it as a kind of joke. 

Back in New York, Anora briefly shifts its tone from rom-com to home invasion thriller, pivoting to slapstick before settling back into dramedy mode. In the absence of Ivan’s manic rabbit energy, Ani looks on as her dream life begins to crumble from underneath her. Though she puts up a fierce fight, she is manhandled and restrained by three Armenian henchmen (led by frequent Baker collaborator Karren Karagulian): the harried employees of Ivan’s billionaire oligarch parents, who have been tasked with the mission of getting their son’s quickie marriage annulled. 

The film has earned multiple comparisons to Uncut Gems (2019), Josh and Benny Safdie’s frenetic crime thriller, but Baker seems to have more affection for his protagonist and is clearly invested in her inner life. Early on in the film, we follow Ani home on her subway commute at the end of a night at HQ, the red tinsel streaks in her hair — strands that catch the deep purple of the club lights — tucked beneath a beanie, her body wrapped in loose, dark street clothes.

But in creating a character that’s so easy to root for, Baker flattens her a bit. As Sophie Monks Kaufman observes in her Little White Lies review, the filmmaker never gives the audience a chance to root against Ani, and the script “does not afford her character the same chances to be despicable” as it did for Simon Rex’s pornstar protagonist in Red Rocket (2021): “The opportunism of her attachment to Ivan is under-explored and instead, her affection for him is played up.” In this way, Ani cleaves a little too close to the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ trope, which describes a sex worker stock character whose fair morals are written to compensate for their less acceptable profession.

However, the note that Baker elects to leave us on is a complex, poignant one, and Madison’s bravura performance is such that you never see it coming. If there were any justice in this world (Cannes), it would win the festival’s top prize. But Anora understands that life isn’t always fair. In fact, it’s almost always kind of quietly heartbreaking.