From 'ANora' To 'THe Substance,' Tales Of Beauty And Its Price Galvanize Cannes

Margaret Qualley, left, and Demi Moore pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'The Substance' at the 77th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Photo by Scott A Garfitt/Invision/AP)
Margaret Qualley, left, and Demi Moore pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'The Substance' at the 77th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Photo by Scott A Garfitt/Invision/AP)
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CANNES, France (AP) — “Beauty is like war,” says Gary Oldman, in character, in Paolo Sorrentino’s “Parthenope.” “It opens doors.”

“Parthenope,” in which Oldman plays the author John Cheever, premiered Tuesday in Cannes. It's just one of the films at this year’s festival to consider beauty: its disruptive power, its cost and the sometimes dangerous portals it might pry ajar. After the competition lineup — the films vying for the Palme d’Or — got a lackluster start last week, Cannes was enlivened by a string of films both fleshy and carnal.

Foremost among them was Sean Baker’s “Anora,” in which Mikey Madison stars as a 23-year-old Russian American stripper in Brighton Beach-Coney Island section of Brooklyn. Baker, the director of “The Florida Project” and “Red Rocket,” has a keen eye for the way social stratification seeps into even the most intimate relationships of his protagonists.

“There’s a million stories to be told in the world of sex workers,” Baker told reporters Wednesday in Cannes. “It’s a livelihood, it’s a career, it’s a job and it’s one that should be respected. In my opinion, it should be decriminalized and not in any way regulated because it is a sex worker’s body and it is up to them to decide how they will use it in their livelihood.”

“Anora," which will be released later this year by Neon, the indie distributor with an enviable Palme d'Or record, has been arguably the breakout of this year's Cannes. It begins with writhing slow-motion bodies in the strip club where Anora (Madison) works. It’s there that “Ani” meets a young and goofy Russian client named Ivan (Mark Eidelstein) who quickly becomes enraptured and hires her to sleep with him for a week.

On a ketamine-induced Las Vegas escapade, they impulsively get married. Ivan is the son of a Russian oligarch so Ani thinks she’s hit the jackpot. But soon after they return, Ivan’s father’s loyal henchmen — themselves working-class underlings — arrive to secure an annulment. What follows is farcical and funny until it’s devastating, with a final act that expresses something tragic about transactional sex, and maybe even love.

It’s also a fierce and fiery tour-de-force performance by Madison, for whom Baker wrote the film, and who might just run away with Cannes’ best actress prize.

“What happened here?” asks the goon squad’s head honcho upon arriving at the helter-skelter scene after the frantic and barely successful entrapment of Ani.

“She happened,” one answers.

Coralie Fargeat’s “The Substance,” perhaps the most debated film of Cannes, is a blunt and gory body-horror satire about beauty standards. It, too, is a showcase for its lead actress. Demi Moore plays a middle-aged Hollywood star, Elisabeth Sparkle, who senses her status slipping. To rekindle her youth, she begins taking a mysterious serum that spawns a younger version of herself, played by Margaret Qualley.

The rub? They have to trade places every seven days. Any overage — getting too hooked on youth — will dearly cost her. What evolves is an extended and increasingly gruesome metaphor for a male-dominated movie industry (Dennis Quaid plays a misogynistic, over-the-top executive) and for the self-inflicted obsession of trying to stay superficially young. It's Botox as a monster movie.

“I don’t know any woman that doesn’t have an eating disorder or some other thing that they do that does violence to their bodies,” Fargeat told reporters in Cannes. “I think this violence is very extreme.”

“The Substance,” which was acquired for distribution by Mubi after its premiere, was divisive — hailed by some as an instant body-horror classic and derided by others for its hyper-stylized and ironically superficial characters. What’s more certain is that “The Substance” is a triumphant film for Moore, 61, who throws every bit of herself into the role, with seemingly none of her character's self-consciousness.

With its megawatt red-carpet pageants, the Cannes Film Festival, itself, is not immune to shining a harshly objectifying glare over all those that enter its cauldron of celebrity. (Elisabeth could easily be imagined having the same pangs of insecurity before coming here.) But it's part of the festival's grand contradictions: what it exalts inside its cinemas is often in direct opposition to all that's transpiring just down the Croisette.

Sorrentino, the Italian director of “The Great Beauty” and “The Hand of God,” has long been a regular in Cannes, and beauty has in many ways always been his primary subject. It's more explicitly so in “Parthenope,” which stars newcomer Celeste Dalla Porta as the title character, a woman of such beauty that helicopters hover above to get a closer look.

“Are you aware of the disruption your beauty causes?” asks Oldman's Cheever, a brief and melancholy acquaintance.

But while Sorrentino is clearly beguiled, too, his movie follows Parthenope on a more existential quest. She resists many of her suitors and instead devotes herself to academia and inner life. The definition of beauty in “Parthenope,” which A24 will release, continually broadens: to its Naples setting, to cinema, to something achingly soulful.

“During the journey I made in making this film, it was as if I had to get rid of a younger side of me, that carefree one,” said Porta, “and enter the world of grown-ups and focus on what I want to do in life.”


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