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Cannes 2024: Anora, Limonov, Ernest Cole: Lost and Found, Lula


The films of Sean Baker (“The Florida Project,” “Red Rocket“) invariably focus on people who live on the margins. If there’s a difference in “Anora,” his latest feature, it’s that the protagonist is almost immediately put on a fast track to great wealth. The movie stars Mikey Madison (“Better Things”), in a deeply moving, verbally and physically demanding performance that should make her a household name, as Anora, a 23-year-old Uzbek-American stripper and sex worker from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She prefers the nickname Ani. Her ability to speak Russian gets her connected with a similar-aged customer named Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn), who is visiting from Russia and turns out to be the son of an oligarch. 

Living in his father’s gated mansion by himself for a brief stay, Ivan is happy to throw money at Ani, and Ani is happy to accept. Ivan’s being a good-natured, Chalamet-haired goofball doesn’t hurt. (The way Eydelshteyn does a somersault on the bed before the characters first have sex is the kind of hilarious, possibly improvised comic touch that we’ve come to expect from Baker.) Eventually, after some wild partying, Ani accepts $15,000 to pose as Ivan’s exclusive girlfriend for one week. Hell, they might even get up to more—like a shotgun wedding in Vegas.

Confirmation of the nuptials catches Torros (Baker regular Karren Karagulian, most memorable as the cab driver in “Tangerine“), whose job is to keep tabs on Ivan, at an inopportune moment that shouldn’t be spoiled. Suffice it to say that the bulk of what follows involves the drawn-out efforts of Torros and his henchmen (Yura Borisov and Vache Tovmasyan) to end the blissful union. A marriage to a prostitute would bring shame on Ivan’s family, even if—as those around the live-wire Ani quietly begin to recognize—she is the best thing that could ever have happened to that spoiled doofus Ivan.

While there are clear antecedents for the premise, from “Pretty Woman” to Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” the most obvious precursor is Baker’s madcap Christmas story “Tangerine.” Maybe “Anora,” which once again focuses on the lives of sex workers, is a crypto-sequel. Set at New Year’s instead of Christmas, and relocated from Los Angeles to New York, it continually shifts tone and pace before landing on a bracing and unexpected note of winter chill. Baker now has a way of working with locations and actors that seems entirely his own (look out for other past collaborators, like Brittney Rodriguez from “Red Rocket”). His films are also effortlessly political, touching on issues of immigration, discrimination, economics, and city living in ways that feel entirely organic to the comedy. 

The last time the Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov was at Cannes, with “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” in 2022, he was making something like a triumphant return, albeit one that was overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He could not attend the Cannes premieres of his two features before that, “Summer” (2018) and “Petrov’s Flu” (2021), because of legal troubles in Russia. (He had been arrested in 2017 on embezzlement charges that were viewed internationally as bogus. “It was widely understood that his real offense was producing work that irritated the Kremlin,” The New York Times Magazine wrote in 2022.)

So the fact that Serebrennikov, who no longer lives in Russia, has a new movie in competition this year is not something to take for granted. But “Limonov. The Ballad” is a frustrating portrait of the Russian writer and provocateur Eduard Limonov (Ben Whishaw), who achieved what is portrayed as his ambition to live in exile (“Writers must be thrown out of their country,” he says in the film. “They must be”), only to eventually return to Russia and then lead the ultra-right National Bolshevik Party. Judging from the film, the only constant in his politics over the years was that he picked whatever stance would most infuriate his audience.

In theory, there is nothing preventing a movie from celebrating the political and sexual rebelliousness of a man who in the film defends Stalin and rues the fall of the Berlin Wall, and who, before his death in 2020, approved of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and supported Russian separatists in the Donbas. (The film began production before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.) But “Limonov. The Ballad” seems to see Limonov’s freewheeling invective as an end in itself. Limonov was a relentlessly angry man, it suggests, so here’s an angry film, and screw you for hoping it could bring coherence to this material. Serebrennikov has been careful to note that this movie should not be seen as strict biography—it’s based on a novel-style book by Emmanuel Carrère. But even the best of Serebrennikov’s films tend to play like bombastic rambles, and the inherent sprawl of trying to capture a life as chaotic as Limonov’s gets the better of him.

Considerably more straightforward, and much better, is Raoul Peck’s documentary “Ernest Cole: Lost and Found,” showing in the festival’s Special Screenings sectionA South African photographer, Cole (1940-90) captured images of life under apartheid that were compiled in an influential book, “House of Bondage” (1967)LaKeith Stanfield reads the film’s semi-fictionalized voice-over, which is in the first person—ostensibly from Cole’s perspective—but is based on information from his friends, family, and associates. The searing photographs, which showcase the injustices, the casual cruelty, and sometimes the absurdities of segregation in South Africa, are largely Cole’s own. According to the movie, 60,000 of Cole’s negatives were rediscovered in a bank vault in Sweden in 2017.

In the voiceover, the film’s version of Cole reflects on the strategies he had to use (such as learning to shoot at eye level), the things he saw in South Africa (he recalls a banishment camp near the Botswana border whose residents were so isolated that they had lost track of the day of the week), and how apartheid related to Jim Crow, which he photographed when he went into exile in the United States. (When he lived in New York, the voice-over notes, his background tended to get him assignments that involved showcasing poverty and desperation.) There are times when “Ernest Cole: Lost and Found” could be clearer about which words come from Cole directly and which are adapted from others. But mostly, it allows Cole’s photographs to speak for themselves.

Also in special screenings, Oliver Stone and Rob Wilson’s “Lula” is, by Stone’s standards, a mostly straightforward account of the career and worldview of the current Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a hero of the left who in the 2022 election cycle defeated Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in a spectacular comeback. (He had spent more than a year and a half in prison on convictions that were eventually annulled.) 

In a sit-down interview, Lula and Stone touch on a number of interesting topics, such as where Lula’s politics fit on the political spectrum (Stone remarks that aspects of his background might have made him prone to either communism or conservatism) and his relationships with recent American presidents. But the movie is also largely old news—the interview itself took place 10 months before the election—and Stone is so prone to casually entertaining conspiratorial interpretations of events that it’s difficult to trust him as a guide.

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