Palme d'Or That Made Everyone Laugh

in Cannes 2024

by Marcelo Janot

The 77th edition of the Cannes Festival ended with a surprising result. Despite rumours that the Iranian film The Seed of the Sacred Fig by Mohammad Rasoulof would be the favourite – for various reasons, including the persecution of the filmmaker in his country, the strong critical content of the film, and the almost unanimous praise it received –, the jury chaired by American director Greta Gerwig chose to award the Palme d’Or to Anora by her fellow countryman Sean Baker. Fortunately, the FIPRESCI jury awarded Rasoulof’s film as the best in the Main Competition.

First of all, it is important to emphasise that Anora is a great film. Among the 22 competitors, it was the only one with the clear intention of making people laugh. It starts as a fairy tale (the stripper who meets a millionaire-Prince Charming), and when everything threatens to go wrong for the title character, it turns into a crazy comedy that elicited many laughs from the audience in all screenings, even breaking the usual seriousness of the critics inside the hall.

Justifying the award, the jury president praised precisely this aspect, saying that the film recalled the structure of classic screwball comedies like those of Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks. It was curious that the jury chose to give the top prize to a film with these characteristics in a year with a bunch of productions that highlighted affirmative policies or challenged the status quo. In several of them, we saw strong women as protagonists, and in this aspect, Anora aligns with Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Perez, Andrea Arnold’s Bird, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light, and others.

It is worth noting the contrast with the excellent Danish drama The Girl With The Needle (Pigen med nalen) by Magnus von Horn, where the protagonist, a textile factory worker, starts a romance with the director and heir of the company, but when they announce their marriage, his mother, a baroness, threatens to disinherit him, and he ends the relationship. The girl’s Cinderella dream goes down the drain – a prelude to the many tragedies that would follow.

In Anora, there is a similar situation. Anora, or simply Ani (Mikey Madson, one of the members of the Charles Manson gang in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), works as a stripper in a nightclub and occasionally engages in sexual activities outside. After receiving an irresistible offer from Vanya (Mark Eydelshtein), the young heir of a Russian oligarch enjoying a wild life in the United States, she spends a week providing him not only with sex at any time but also companionship for endless nights in clubs, drugs, video games, and everything else that an immature and limitless millionaire might want. The adventure ends in Las Vegas, where the inebriated boy proposes an immediate wedding, a kitsch ceremony as another of his inconsequential pranks – except this time with legal value, registered at the notary.

Ani is not the naive Cinderella. From a commercial relationship, this one evolves into a romance where she pragmatically sees in Vanya someone who can offer her a better financial future. Over time, love may even arise in the relationship. After all, although infantilized and somewhat silly, he is affectionate, attentive, makes her have fun, and seems sincere. In other words, very different from the men she must have met in her twenty-something years of a hard life. There is a complexity in this situation that is enhanced by Mikey Madson’s great performance.

However, when the news of the wedding reaches Russia, Vanya’s parents immediately order their henchmen to annul the registry at the notary’s. The boy, in another outburst of immaturity, simply runs out of the house to vent his anger by drinking, snorting, and touring the local clubs, while Ani remains under the escort of the family’s security guards.

From there, the film takes an unexpected and surprising turn: instead of exploring the protagonist’s drama, the narrative embarks on a delirious comic spiral that indeed recalls the screwball comedies of Lubitsch, Hawks, and (why not?) Almodóvar. Ani reacts to the situation by confronting the guards, and the scenes of violence between them are tearfully funny, as is everything that happens that night as they try to find Vanya’s whereabouts. The film takes on the feel of After Hours by Scorsese, and the biggest nightmare becomes that of the Russian millionaire’s employees, who realize that their jobs (and perhaps their lives) may be at risk if they do not find the spoiled boy.

Sean Baker has previously realistically addressed situations involving not only sex workers (Tangerine, Red Rocket) but also dysfunctional American families (The Florida Project). With Anora, he achieves his best result, choosing an unexpected and risky path through cathartic humour that does not alienate the viewer, on the contrary: the brilliant and delicate final scene, followed by credits without music, shows that cinema can be entertaining while also being a necessary invitation to reflection.

Marcelo Janot
Edited by Birgit Beumers