Cannes entry 'Anora' aims to destigmatize sex work, says director

By Miranda Murray and Alicia Powell

CANNES, France (Reuters) -Part of director Sean Baker's aim in making "Anora," a darkly funny and touching drama about a young exotic dancer who becomes involved with a Russian oligarch's son, was to remove the stigma surrounding sex work, he said on Wednesday.

"It's important to explore what sex work is in the modern age," Baker told journalists at the Cannes Film Festival, where the competition film premiered on Tuesday. "It's a career and job that should be respected."

Sex work should be decriminalized and not regulated as "it is a sex worker's body, and it is up to them to decide how they will use it in their livelihood," he said.

"Anora" continues a streak of sex worker-focused films by Baker, including the 2021 Cannes entry "Red Rocket" and 2017's "The Florida Project," that he has no plans of stopping.

"We've already been talking about the next one, and it involves a sex worker. So let's see what happens," he said.

"Anora" stars Mikey Madison as the titular character, who meets Vanya, the immature son of a Russian oligarch with seemingly unlimited money, while working at a strip club.

Vanya, played by Mark Eydelshteyn, hires Anora to be his girlfriend for a week, deciding on a whim to take his private plane to party in Las Vegas, where they get married. That decision upsets his disapproving parents so much that they jet over from Russia to ensure he gets an annulment.

Reviews were positive, with The Guardian newspaper giving the "stellar" film four out of five stars and The Hollywood Reporter calling it "a very satisfying watch, deftly commenting on questions of class, privilege and the wealth divide."

Shooting the sex scenes was a collaborative process that involved the actors' input, said Madison, who opted not to use an intimacy coordinator or bring in a stunt double.

"We spoke about the sex scenes a lot because in the script you would say they have sex. And so we're like, okay, well what would that look like?" said Madison, recalling that Baker and his wife and producer Samantha Quan would demonstrate for them.

"Those scenes were fun to shoot and all of the lap dance scenes were very fun to shoot as well," said Madison, who read books by sex workers and spoke to exotic dancers in New York to prepare for the role that is "completely different from me."

Baker said he would support an actor's decision to use an intimacy coordinator - who helps choreograph TV and movie scenes involving sex or nudity and ensures actors are not exploited.

"Our number one priority is to keep our actors safe, protected, comfortable, and involved in the process," he said.

(Reporting by Miranda MurrayEditing by Bernadette Baum)