Sean Baker’s “Anora” Shocks Cannes, Captures Coveted Palme d’Or

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It was a sparkling moment for Sean Baker as his film, “Anora,” took home the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The poignant yet humorous take on the life of a sex worker married to a wealthy Russian oligarch’s son reigned supreme, securing the coveted Palme d’Or.

In an exhilarating win for Baker, this 53-year-old independent creator, known for his innovative use of iPhones in filmmaking in the making of his 2015 film, “Tangerine,” showed his exceptional storytelling prowess. It was an unprecedented fifth consecutive time that the top Cannes honors went to films distributed by indie distributor Neon, following luminaries like “Parasite,” “Titane,” “Triangle of Sadness,” and “Anatomy of a Fall.”

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At the Cannes closing ceremony, the emotional Baker accepted the prestigious prize with Mikey Madison, the star of his movie, watching from the front row of the audience. Baker humbly admitted, “This, literally, has been my singular goal as a filmmaker for the past 30 years, so I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with the rest of my life,” adding in jest. He resolutely announced his continued ambition: to “fight to keep cinema alive.”

Baker, the first American filmmaker to claim the Palme d’Or since Terrence Mallick’s 2011 triumph with “The Tree of Life,” asserted the value of traditional cinema viewing. He argued, “Watching a film at home while scrolling through your phone, answering emails and half paying attention is just not the way — although some tech companies would like us to think so.” Baker dedicated his award to all sex workers, giving them past, present, and future recognition and respect.

The eclectic nine-member jury, helmed by the illustrious Greta Gerwig, gave the nod to “Anora.” Gerwig found herself deeply affected by the cinematic experience. She lauded “Anora” for its semblance to classical cinema, feeling like a contemporary rendition of films by greats like Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks.

Even though “Anora” was a hit at the festival, its triumph came as a surprise. For many, the gentle Indian drama “All We Imagine As Light” or the Iranian film “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” seemed the likelier choices. However, these films didn’t leave empty-handed either.

Just as stunning was the prelude to George Lucas’ honorary Palme d’Or presentation. The old Hollywood guard reunited as Francis Ford Coppola appeared to present the award to Lucas, rekindling the collective memory of their immense impact on American filmmaking. Lucas, always an outlier in Hollywood, wistfully remembered his roots saying, “I’m just a kid who grew up in a vineyard in Modesto, California, who makes movies in San Francisco, with my friend Francis.”

The festival was equally spectacle and depth, where Payal Kapadia’s captivating portrayal of sisterhood in modern Mumbai, “All We Imagine As Light,” secured the Grand Prix, the second-highest Cannes honor. Kapadia, undeterred by the spotlight, urged the global audience to explore the richness of Indian cinema beyond Bollywood.

A special prize found its way to Mohammad Rasoulof’s “The Seed of the Sacred Fig.” Rasoulof, who fled Iran days before his film’s premiere. “The Substance,” a body horror film starring Demi Moore, won best screenplay.

One of the most touching moments came when an ensemble of actors: Karla Sofía Gascón, Zoe Saldaña, Selena Gomez, and Adriana Paz triumphed in the best actress category for “Emilia Perez,” a Spanish-language musical about a Mexican drug lord’s transition to womanhood. An emotional Gascón, the first trans actor to win a major prize at Cannes, dedicated the award to “all people who are fighting for themselves and their rights.”

While many speculated that Jesse Plemons would win the best actor for Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness,” the accolade eventually went to Portuguese director Miguel Gomes for his “Grand Tour,” an Asian odyssey set in 1917.

This star-studded Cannes festival revealed a compelling assortment of narratives that captivated and stunned audiences in equal measure. Among the glitz and glamour, the festival was also a platform for poignant social commentaries, displaying the power cinema had in reflecting our society and reimagining our futures.