La Presse at the 77th Cannes Film Festival | Donald Trump: portrait of the sociopath as a young wolf

(Cannes) Donald Trump conducts his life and business according to three golden rules: attack is the best defense, you must admit nothing, deny everything, and you must never concede victory. He borrowed this creed from the controversial lawyer Roy Cohn, according to The Apprentice by Ali Abbasi, presented Monday in competition at Cannes.

This biographical drama, whose title evokes the reality TV hosted by Donald Trump from 2004 to 2015, is the unflattering and fairly classic portrait in its form of a young real estate wolf who became a power-hungry sociopath, under the aegis of ‘a devious mentor.

The Danish filmmaker of Iranian origin of the disturbing thriller Holy Spider, which won the Best Actress Prize at Cannes for Zahra Amir Ebrahimi in 2022, focuses on what shaped Donald Trump’s personality in the 1970s and 1980s. How his lack of confidence transformed into arrogance then into megalomania; and the reasons which explain why the border between truth and lies has become for him a vague and malleable object according to his interests.

At the heart of the intrigue, there is a Faustian pact between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, formidable lawyer and political matchmaker, manipulator, liar and reactionary blackmailer, several times accused of being involved in shady deals, but never convicted.

In the role of young Trump, Sebastian Stan (the Winter Soldier of the Marvel films and series) assimilated the pout, speech and gestures typical of the former President of the United States. He is on the verge of a caricature of the type Saturday Night Live, and it took me a while to get there, but I ended up believing in the character beyond the pastiche.

Jeremy Strong is excellent in the role of Roy Cohn, the Jewish and anti-Semitic prosecutor who sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair in the 1950s and who advised Senator McCarthy in his hunt for communists. Cohn was also a homophobe who denied his homosexuality, and who died of AIDS in 1986.

It is the influence of the Pygmalion on his foal that tells The Apprentice, and it is obviously impossible not to see in Cohn’s cynical philosophy the germ of what threatens American (and global) democracy today. The film seems to defend a thesis: if Donald Trump had not met Roy Cohn, perhaps he would not have become this despicable being, without the slightest scruple or the slightest empathy, ready to sell his mother for his own advancement.

Ali Abbasi’s film begins with the famous images of Richard Nixon declaring that he is not a crook (” I am not a crook »). The script by Gabriel Sherman, who knew Donald Trump in the 2000s when he was a journalist on the economic pages of New York Observeron the other hand, seems almost sympathetic to Trump at the beginning of the film.

Sherman presents young Donald Trump as a man who has not yet renounced the basic principles of justice and does not make him a caricature of a talentless idiot. Yes, his father was rich and he took advantage of it, but he also had a flair for business.

Before finding a father figure in Cohn, the young Donald at the beginning of the film above all wants to make his uncompromising father proud, who raised him the hard way, while extricating himself from his shadow. In this way, he resembles the character of Kendall played by Jeremy Strong in the series. Succession…

Like his racist father, Donald Trump divides in The Apprentice the world into two categories: on one side there are the “killers”, and on the other the losers. “You have to be able to do everything, against everyone, to win,” explains Roy Cohn, who thanks to his contacts will make him go from ambitious shark to real estate tycoon during the Reagan years, favorable to wild capitalism.

Over time, the less Trump heeded Cohn’s advice – who notably urged him not to invest in Atlantic City – the more the Gabriel Sherman scenario revealed the uncontrollable nature of the monster that the mentor helped create. Until a scene of disturbing violence where, after insisting that his wife Ivana (Maria Bakalova) obtain a breast augmentation, Donald Trump repudiates and rapes her. Which Ivana Trump actually claimed at the time of their divorce, but which she later denied.

The Appendice suggests that Trump had mistresses (including Marla Maples), but also links to the mafia through Roy Cohn. Trump was also addicted to weight gain medications and suffered from erectile dysfunction, underwent liposuction and surgeries to hide his baldness.

Could the film harm the image of the Republican candidate at the dawn of the next American presidential campaign? “When we gave the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, did this have an impact on George Bush’s re-election? No », replied the general delegate of the Cannes Festival, when asked the question a week ago.

It’s hard to contradict him: the films presented at Cannes usually preach to the converted and Trump embodies an image of the United States to which a very large proportion of the electorate subscribes. And then I would be very surprised if The Apprentice wins the Palme d’Or…

The hosting costs for this report were paid by the Cannes Film Festival, which had no say over it.

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