Explosive Trump biopic hits Cannes Film Festival

'Emilia Perez' is the current frontrunner among critics for the Palme d'Or award (Valery HACHE)
'Emilia Perez' is the current frontrunner among critics for the Palme d'Or award (Valery HACHE)

Rape, erectile dysfunction, baldness and betrayal: an explosive new biopic of Donald Trump shown at Cannes on Monday paints an unflinching but nuanced portrait of the former US president, even as he runs again for the White House.

"The Apprentice" traces Trump's origin story as an ambitious young property developer in 1970s and 1980s New York.

Sebastian Stan, best known from Marvel superhero films, stars as Trump, while Jeremy Strong of "Succession" fame plays his ruthless mentor and attorney Roy Cohn -- and both received glowing reviews from Cannes critics.

Initially presenting an almost sympathetic portrayal of a headstrong but naive social climber, the film charts Trump's decency being eroded as he learns the dark arts of dealmaking and tastes power.

Its premiere at the French film festival Monday came while Trump is on trial in Manhattan for a tawdry scandal involving a porn star.

The movie begins with a disclaimer that many of its events are fictionalised, and director Ali Abbasi puts that licence to full use, imagining brutal events taking place behind closed doors.

In one harrowing scene, Trump is seen raping his first wife Ivana.

During divorce proceedings, Ivana once accused Trump of raping her, though she later rescinded the allegation. She died in 2022.

The movie appears to have already infuriated Trump's team.

His campaign communications director Steven Cheung said a lawsuit would be filed "to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers".

"This garbage is pure fiction which sensationalises lies that have been long debunked," added Cheung in a statement to AFP.

Speaking to Vanity Fair before the premier, Abbasi had said the aim was "to do a punk rock version of a historical movie... [not] get too anal about details and what's right and what's wrong".

- 'Attack, attack, attack' -

Iranian-born director Abbasi is a Cannes regular. His serial killer fable "Holy Spider" played in competition two years ago.

"The Apprentice" begins with a young Trump, obsessed with joining the city's elite and dreaming of his own luxury hotel, even as he spends his days personally collecting rent from his father's tenants.

His life is transformed by an encounter with Cohn, whose harshly nihilistic lessons such as "admit nothing, deny everything" and "attack, attack, attack" will become Trump's manifesto in later life.

Cohn made his name as a fearsome lawyer by hunting Communists for Senator Joseph McCarthy, and sending Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair.

Far from a simple hatchet job, The Times of London even argued it would "make you feel sympathy for Trump", while Variety said it was "sharp and scathing, but it avoids cheap shots".

The screenplay was written by Gabriel Sherman, a journalist who covered real estate for the New York Observer in the 2000s and regularly spoke with Trump.

The film is one of 22 in competition for the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or. A jury headed by "Barbie" director Greta Gerwig will unveil its winner on Saturday.

Asked whether it was possible for an American woman to be objective in judging a film about Trump, Gerwig said she would come to the movie with "an open mind and an open heart, and willing to be surprised".

- 'Raw experience' -

Also at Cannes, Demi Moore has emerged as a serious contender for the best actress award after rave reviews for her "fearless" performance in "The Substance", an ultra-gory horror about the pressures women face to maintain bodily perfection as they age.

"It was a very raw experience," she said, requiring her to "expose myself emotionally and physically".

Also on Monday was the latest from David Cronenberg -- director of body-horror classics like "The Fly", "Crash" and "Videodrome".

The story of a widowed businessman (Vincent Cassel) who invents a machine to monitor the dead in their graves, it was partly inspired by the death in 2017 of Cronenberg's wife of 43 years.

For now, the frontrunner is considered to be "Emilia Perez", a highly audacious musical about a Mexican narco boss undergoing a sex change.

It has earned acclaim for stars Zoe Saldana, Selena Gomez and trans actor Karla Sofia Gascon in the title role, as well as its French director, Jacques Audiard, who already has a Palme d'Or under his belt.

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