Anora review – stellar turn from Mikey Madison in sex work non-love story

<span>‘Vocal snap and physical grace’ … Mikey Madison in Anora.</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
‘Vocal snap and physical grace’ … Mikey Madison in Anora.Photograph: PR

What would Pretty Woman look like if it bore the smallest resemblance to the reality of sex work? Maybe something like this, Sean Baker’s amazing, full-throttle tragicomedy of romance, denial and betrayal. It’s a non-love story which finds its apex in a Las Vegas wedding chapel in the middle of the night and then, with a terrible inevitability, slaloms downwards into the most extraordinary, cacophonous uproar of recrimination unfolding in what is more or less real time. The hangover outlasts the party by many days.

The heroine is Anora, though she prefers Ani, a New York escort and table dancer played with vocal snap and physical grace by Mikey Madison (Manson groupie Susan “Sadie” Atkins in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). One night, the club manager comes into the women’s dressing room and says a high-roller is out there, asking for a dancer who can speak Russian. Ani, who is from an Uzbek background and whose grandmother spoke Russian, volunteers.

The man is Vanya (Mark Eydelshteyn) – a sweet-faced but otherwise entirely appalling and brattishly entitled son of an oligarch; he is supposedly studying but actually just spending his father’s money. Vanya is with his retinue of Russian-speaking locals and there is an instant spark with tough, smart, unsentimental Ani. Vanya invites her round repeatedly to his staggeringly luxurious crib, and pays her a five-figure sum to be his exclusive girlfriend for a trip with his sycophantic squad to Vegas where, delirious with infatuation with the gorgeous Ani, he proposes marriage.

Ani allows herself to believe this is real and the wedding certificate is legal enough. But then Vanya’s less-than-delighted father sends some goons round to sort this situation with his boneheaded son (whom Ani poignantly believes will stand by her). Among the tough guys is Igor (Yuriy Borisov), who is as violent as any of them but with a weird streak of sensitivity and almost gallantry towards Ani.

The awful story of Ani and Vanya has the horrible fascination of a slo-mo car crash, but the kind of car crash where people call the police but not an ambulance. Everyone in the audience can see what a deeply unreliable prospect the motormouthed and delusional cokehead Vanya is – and Ani is not so stupid that she can’t see it either. But the point is that Vanya is no more arrogant and dumb than any of the other men in her life; the difference is that he is young, handsome, very rich, wants to marry her and, most crucially of all, actually does marry her. Ani weighs up the odds and chooses to believe it and at no stage is she hardhearted or cynical; Baker and Madison show us that Ani is not heading for a fall in any moralistic sense. Like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she believes that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty. At some level, she naturally knows that his parents may not like the idea, but the fait accompli of a Las Vegas marriage certificate is unarguable, and she believes she just has to hang on and they will come around.

What follows is hideous disloyalty from cringing Vanya, and an extended (perhaps too extended) black-comic yet weirdly believable farce of violence and hysteria. Ani keeps her dignity to the very end, and Vanya’s father is incidentally revealed to be just another weak man. There is a terrible sadness in the ultimate scene where proud Ani shows that she cannot accept demeaning gifts from anyone without paying, with a private dance, in a car if necessary. I can actually imagine Mikey Madison getting cast as Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls and letting rip with Take Back Your Mink. It is a terrific performance from Madison, who owns the screen, and Eydelshteyn’s turn as the shiftless Vanya is also very watchable. Baker’s film-making is muscular and fluent.

• Anora screened at the Cannes film festival.