‘Anora’ Review: The Best American Movie So Far This Decade (Cannes)

Other reviews compare Anora to Pretty Woman, but this is a bad mistake. The world has moved on considerably since 1990, and these days, capitalism is now second to oligarchy. Oligarchs are people for whom life is to be lived without consequences because their incredible wealth means anything, or anyone, can be bought. Houses protected by armed guards, the time of judges, the bodies of young and willing women: everything has its price and everything is possible. If anything loses its beauty or utility, it can be discarded without a thought, as there are hundreds more just like them. Houses, judges, young and willing women. 

Anora knows in its bones how this bottomless wealth controls everything for the people whose lives are touched by it, and how hard those people must work, or not, to maintain their humanity in its wake. Anora is also so good it’s the best American movie so far this decadeand deserves to permanently change the lives of everyone involved in its making.

Ani (Mikey Madison, who is so extraordinary it’s hard to remember she is acting) strips at a high-end New York club, where she’s often sent to handle Russian high rollers since she grew up speaking kitchen Russian with her grandmother. She understands plenty, even though her accent is awful. One night she’s sent to amuse Vanya (Mark Eydelshteyn), an immature, friendly, and incredibly wealthy stoner who’s quickly enchanted by Ani, body and mind. 

Who wouldn’t be: she’s clever and funny, a hard worker, and a good friend who deserves a break. And Vanya has so much money – well, his daddy has so much money – it’s basically meaningless to him, which only someone with that much money can say. They get on so well Ani starts seeing him outside the club, a privilege he pays for, but Vanya is so enthusiastic to hang out and so generous and open-hearted when they do that it’s actually really fun. He even turns a somersault before the first time they sleep together. In time, Ani starts to realise his enthusiasm is not being faked, even if her orgasms are. 

He’s a bit younger than her, 21 to her 23, but despite that, too, she’s eventually completely overwhelmed by the intensity of their mutual feeling. On a whim, they take a private jet to Las Vegas with a gang of Vanya’s friends, which involves an enormous suite, so much carousing IV drips are needed to recover, and so much sex that Ani doesn’t really have to dance for him anymore. When Vanya asks her to marry him, she scoffs and doesn’t believe it, but Vanya is serious. He loves and likes her, and of course, he’ll buy her a four-carat ring. So they get married. It’s adorable.

Back in New York, rumors of this marriage reach the ears of Vanya’s minder Toros (Karren Karagulian), a priest who is supposed to be keeping Vanya out of trouble and his terrifying, disliked parents happy. Tomos gets his helper Granik (Vache Tovmasyan), a befuddled bouncer, and their frightening enforcer Igor (Yura Borisov, more on whom later) to join him in finding out if the rumors are true. When the three men arrive at the house, they have to force their way in. 

Vanya reacts completely in character, and Ani fights so hard that all three men – who are under strict instructions not to hurt Vanya’s wife, not that they particularly want to hurt her or enjoy this part of their job – are stunned and impressed. And then not one further hint of the plot must be spoiled, as Anora turns into an examination of everything money can buy, and how romance can bloom under the most incredible pressure.

Nobody breathed for the last ten minutes of the movie; that’s how high the stakes become. Director Sean Baker, who also wrote, edited, and co-produced, plays our reactions like an orchestra, weaponizing our sympathy for Ani into a desperate wish that she’ll have the happy ending she so richly deserves. But she is up against all the money in the world, a worldview that sees her as disposable, and a group of serious men who are deadly serious about splitting her and Vanya up. 

The problems escalate, and the stakes get higher and higher, all built around that extraordinary performance of Ms. Madison, whose acting is remarkable most obviously in the dancing scenes, some of the best strip club dancing ever put on film. But it’s just as palpable when she’s quickly calculating whether to fight, scream her head off, or accept a glass of vodka without looking at the person who handed it to her. She makes it clear that Ani knows exactly who she is, whether she likes it or not, that Vanya loves her, that she is worth everything he can offer her, and much more. 

This exceptional work is matched by a career-making performance by Mr. Borisov, a superstar in Russian cinema who will now be able to write his own global ticket for the rest of his life. There’s a small scene where a spoiled young man unwisely confronts him with a baseball bat. Igor takes it without effort and with a genuine sense of danger. Then Mr. Borisov makes it clear, entirely through body language, that Igor has never held a bat before and is excited by its capability, but when it’s no longer immediately necessary, he just throws it away. 

Mr. Eydelshteyn has the showier part, of a spoiled brat who hates his parents but who loves their privilege, and in between all his shrieks of excitement and lines of cocaine makes Vanya’s sincerity about Ani ring absolutely true. All five main actors also swap seamlessly between English and Russian in a way which accurately reflects the ways people talk and think in different languages (and is very pleasingly becoming common in movies). Drew Daniels’ cinematography stays close to Ani without minimizing the scope of about this mess they’re all in, and the soundtrack, largely club music or Russian hip-hop, maintains a sexualized, pulsing tension. 

Mr. Baker made his name as a modern gonzo filmmaker – even if you’ve never seen Tangerine, you know it was shot on iPhones – who focuses on sex work and the impossibility of love under capitalism. Here, he’s turned all his skills in those themes up to eleven to deliver one of the most romantic movies in a very long time. The way in which he delivers that tremendous and unexpected ending had everyone on the edge of their seats. It’s so romantic there’s even a scene where a man lights two cigarettes in his own mouth before handing one over. Anora cannot be recommended highly enough.

Anora recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Learn more about the film at the Cannes Film Festival page for the title.

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