It started with regret, as it so often does on Netflix. Fifteen minutes into the first episode of ‘Inventing Anna’, the titular character’s accent swaying between South Africa and an at-that-point unidentified Eastern bloc country coupled with Anna Chlumsky’s frantic study of a woman about to give birth at any moment, I was feeling like I’d made a terrible decision to commit nine hours of my life to this show.
I was wrong. Here’s some background.
I was aware of Anna Sorokin/Delvey’s story via the BBC podcast ‘Fake Heiress’. Over six parts, the implausible tale of a young Russian woman hustling her way from relative poverty to VIP by changing her name and telling rich people what they wanted to hear was compelling; not least because there’s something satisfying about people who are financially insulated from real-life tasting the bitterness. I listened to it several times, feeling mildly guilty at rooting for Anna, but not enough to stop. When I found out Netflix had bought the rights, I waited for it to appear with the same excitement I usually reserve for a new series of Succession.
And as with most things one builds up, I initially found the reality to be a disappointment for a number of reasons.
“This whole story is completely true,” proclaim newspaper headlines, a storefront, and (probably) the blood of poor people. “Except for all the parts that are totally made up.”
If the source material of this batshit series of events isn’t enough to convey the drama maybe you’re doing it wrong, was my reasoning. Anna Delvey stole a fucking plane and you need to invent characters and repaint people as caricatures in order to make it compelling?
Secondly, the hysteria coursing through the veins of everyone apart from Anna herself. Characters so focussed on fulfilling their own personal destiny, the psychopathic behaviour of actual grown adults around them barely even registers.
Kacy Duke, the citizens of Scriberia, Rachel and especially close confidante Neff Davis, grow into their histrionics as the series progresses. Vivian Kent, the journalist trying to translate this mayhem into copy, seems to drift into incoherence the closer she gets. The fact that she’s very pregnant while all this is happening makes the feminist in me twitch. Hormones make people mental, y’know? And at times, Shonda Rhimes’ take veers into parody.
I couldn’t switch it off though. If ‘Fake Heiress’ was the classical text, ‘Inventing Anna’ is the full VR experience and it’s just as immersive. A short story augmented with blinding colour, set in a version of Manhattan so exquisitely rendered, it might as well be computer-generated. Sudden shifts of direction frequently leave one dizzy and nauseous, flailing for something reliable to grab onto. Even Vivien’s husband Jack, one of the few characters acquainted with reality in this series, drifts off into a dreamlike state as he’s widowed in slow motion, not by another woman, you understand, but by his wife’s obsession with Anna Delvey.
Indeed, the only person who isn’t losing sight of the bigger picture in her desperation to achieve her goals is the protagonist herself. Vivien wants to restore her reputation as an investigative journalist before having her baby. Neff wants to direct a film. Jack wants to assert himself over his pregnant wife. Kacy wants love. Rachel wants to be Khloe Kardashian.
Anna wants VIP.
Only she has the confidence to pursue her dream with a single-minded, almost maniacal commitment, using people when it suits her and casting them aside when it doesn’t. We discuss her culpability in public discourse endlessly because she’s the figurehead. But what of those who lifted her to those heights?
Rachel Williams’ association with Anna got her the Kardashian selfie at an exclusive Moroccan resort. It cost her around $65k, but she got it. Kacy’s cost of entry to Anna’s world was a promising love affair. Even Neff, who meets Anna while working in an exclusive hotel to fund her first picture, has her eyes on the prize. Burned by a chance meeting with film school classmate while working the concierge desk, she recognises the aura of intense wealth surrounding Delvey and leverages her for all she’s worth. In her case, neatly folded hundred dollar bills in exchange for her contacts. Unspoken but as tangible as it gets.
Rhimes shows us that the binary resolution of placing people into victim or offender categories fails to tell the story. If you’re open to it, ‘Inventing Anna’ asks the viewer a more complex question than we’re generally inclined to contemplate during a Netflix series.
If Anna Delvey had been given the $40m from Fortress Investment Group, who’s to say she wouldn’t have brought her dream, The Anna Delvey Foundation, to fruition? As people moved through the carefully curated art exhibitions, chatting the latest restaurants while drinking wine that costs more than a terraced house in Hartlepool, no one would be speculating as to the provenance of Anna’s wealth.
Isn’t this the way wealth works? No one looks under the hood of a Porsche to admire the spark plugs. They coo over the sleek bodywork, the paint job, the noise it makes. The ‘effects’. On city streets, people flock around them, the excitement, the buzz of proximity to extreme wealth. To ‘the dream’.
In Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes removes the artifice and reveals the ugly side of desire. The real side. And it’s no accident (or thinly veiled feminist finger-wagging, for that matter) that the majority of the characters she used to articulate her point are women.
This is the kind of risk-taking we usually associate with a debonair male, a handsome chap who’s been given a few bad breaks in life but thanks to his chutzpah, his winning smile and a precocious understanding that no one looks beneath the hood, he wins. At least for a while. Remember how much fun it was when Leonardo DiCaprio pretended to be a pilot in Catch Me If You Can? This film frames Frank Abagnale Jnr’s heavy grifting as the work of a cheeky chap, a scamp, an opportunist. Although some claims were later refuted, the movie took care to use all the artist licence available to show us how beautiful one can look while defrauding people.
Anna Sorokin understood the same principles of symbolism and risk-taking and her creation, Anna Delvey, leveraged it. Theoretically, we could all do it. But most of us don’t have the psychopathy required to pull it off, which is why we find ourselves outraged at these outliers. We’re angry with ourselves.
Inventing Anna is a looking glass through which we see the ugly shapes we all contort ourselves into when we’re in pursuit of something. It’s bulbous and it shrieks and scratches. It leaves others in pain and difficulty but it doesn’t see because its eyes are fixed on that story, that art foundation, that love, that person.
This is not the artifice. It’s real. If real even exists anymore.