Anora: Sean Baker’s Satirical Take on Pretty Woman | Review

Anora, a rom-com by Sean Baker, explores class divides through a stripper's week with a rich Russian. Entertaining but weakened by length and repetition.


Cannes 2024

by Sean Baker

A fun rom-com that, without any particular ambitions, keeps the few promises it makes, Anora marks Sean Baker’s return to competition at the Cannes Festival, three years after his previous film, Red Rocket. This indie movie is charming, thanks in part to the screen presence of its lead, Mikey Madison.

“That big-ass Cinderella”

The twenty-year-old Anora, known as Ani, works in a New York strip club where she gives her all, to the great satisfaction of her clients. One night, Anora meets a young Russian man her age who goes crazy for her and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: to spend a week together for a generous payment.

A wild and lively indie comedy, Anora opens with a shot of naked girls rubbing against the sleazy patrons of a New York strip club until the camera stops on one of them who asks a girl, “Do your parents know you do this job?” She replies, amused, “Does your family know you’re here?” After leaving the Texas setting of Red Rocket, also presented in competition at Cannes in 2021, Sean Baker seems to continue along the thematic lines of that film, where the sexy “Strawberry” wanted to escape her small town (a lousy place) to pursue a career in porn with the protagonist. But this is only the very first impression because Anora is not an examination of young women employed—off the books—to excite men in nightclubs. Instead, it is a satirical reinterpretation of the core idea of Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990), which was incredibly considered romantic by the whole world: in Baker’s film, the young protagonist (Mikey Madison), who is the same age as Julia Roberts when the movie that launched her career came out (23 years) and who prefers to be called Ani, meets the twenty-year-old Russian Jurij, aka Vanja (Mark Ėjdel’štejn), at her workplace. He is so smitten with her that he first invites her to his place for sex (which is forbidden at the club) and then proposes they spend the entire week together in exchange for $15,000. This is exactly the inciting incident of Pretty Woman, where the prostitute and the wealthy businessman fall in love at the end of the seven days and break down class and “professional” barriers to stay together. However, in Anora, things do not turn out this way, and class differences, along with the insensitivity of the wealthy, become the focal point.

Jurij/Vanja is a complete idiot who spends his days drinking, doing drugs, and playing video games because he can, being obscenely rich: as soon as Ani steps into his luxurious apartment near Coney Island, the evidence is undeniable. The girl tries to understand how a twenty-one-year-old can be so wealthy and asks various questions, like if he’s one of those genius entrepreneurs who struck it rich with an app or something (following the all-American self-made man ideology). But the answer is simple: Jurij is the son of what Western media would call an “oligarch,” a multi-mega-billionaire businessman, so the kid has money to burn. From “Does your family know you work here?” to family as the only possible way to separate the saved from the damned: despite being a poor idiot, Jurij is saved by birth, while Anora, a smart girl, “has” to shake her booty in people’s faces due to her birth. In any case, after a week of sex, even the Russian kid “does” the Richard Gere thing and proposes to Ani after a two-day trip to Las Vegas: with a diamond the size of a marble on her finger, she says yes and thus becomes the sweetheart of an immense fortune. But, once again, things won’t go as they would in a Hollywood movie with stars, and the scamp’s family will first deploy their troops on New York soil and then fly in directly from Russia in a private jet to grab their son by the ears and annul the marriage.

The work Baker brought to the Croisette offers absolutely interesting aspects: Anora dismantles the plot to focus on class differences, which have now become chasms because today, the rich and the non-rich belong to different planets rather than different classes. So, enough with “That big-ass Cinderella,” as Laura San Giacomo’s character in Pretty Woman (Vivian’s colleague) would say, who is also explicitly invoked in Anora because the protagonist, like Cinderella, has won the lottery. Beyond this aspect, which in the film “motivates” the female choice to consciously exploit her body, what might initially seem a bit racist—that “the bad guys” are Russians—actually indicates that despite the stories told, the money that needs to circulate circulates, and the deals that need to be made are made. The capital that matters knows no wars or borders, rules or conflicts, and doesn’t care about slogans meant to appease the masses: these are bedtime stories for subordinates, goodnight tales to lull consciences.

An intriguing but controversial aspect is the depiction of sex: Sean Baker also shows here—just like in the aforementioned Red Rocket—the young bodies of the protagonist and her friends in an eroticized manner. They enjoy making others feel good and are almost happy to be topless as if they hold power over men, doing a job bordering on prostitution. That Anora flips the script in the emotional finale, the only moment of the protagonist’s emotional revelation, is evident, but many scenes aim to be sexy, and until the last minute, Anora remains a bold, autonomous, self-determined, and serene sex worker, the only means of exchange she has with the world. In the end, the mask falls, with a rather powerful effect, but for the rest of the film, it remains “up” perfectly, which probably tells the story of a generation that takes selling oneself for granted.

Well-balanced and capable of a tender finale, the film is “bipartite” and features a very long sequence at its center, which outlines the turning point that will structure the not-so-brief second part: unlike what happened to her in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, where she was one of the Manson family killers, Mikey Madison (Anora) doesn’t end up burned by a flamethrower in DiCaprio’s pool but instead beats up the tough guys who come to get her, sent by the Russian bosses, to annul the marriage. Anora is a force of nature, a really gritty girl, but Baker’s repetition of certain dynamics is not, and instead, it weakens what would otherwise be more effective: the scene with the thugs in Jurij’s apartment (who has fled) and almost the entire second half of the film, with the search for the fugitive to bring him to his parents, makes the action overly repetitive. The film lasts 139 minutes, almost two hours and twenty, and could easily be cut by half an hour without forcing: the director stretches every idea to the limit, and this perhaps weakens Anora instead of strengthening it, especially considering that the entire plot is completely predictable and presents no deviations from what a minimally astute viewer can deduce from the first quarter of an hour for the first half and then from the arrival of the thugs and especially the attentive and kind Igor (Jurij Borisov, known for the excellent Captain Volkonogov Escaped and the commendable Compartment No. 6) for the development leading to the resolution.

Anora is fun and charming, entertains, and offers some points for reflection (without straining the brain too much, of course), but it is not so inventive or creative as to justify its duration (like many films in this Cannes competition and, in general, too many productions of recent years). Just think of the pre-finale dialogue between Igor and Anora, where two concepts are reiterated eight times: although the lead actress has worked with Tarantino and in every line she says—deliberately—“fuck” or “fucking” in every possible declination, Sean Baker does not have the brilliance of his colleague, and his film may not have the sparkle to sustain every single minute of film (it was shot on 35mm). Anora remains a fun rom-com that keeps what it promises. Not that it promises much…

Elisa Battistini

Quinlan, May 23, 2024


1 thought on “Anora: Sean Baker’s Satirical Take on Pretty Woman | Review”

  1. Damn! Red Rocket was such a great blend of humour & pathos I was hoping his follow up would be just as potent. Sounds like this one is a bit of a mixed bag.

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