Director Ali Abbasi and cast members Sebastian Stan and Maria Bakalova pose during a photocall for the film "The Apprentice" in competition at the 77th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, May 21, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

CANNES, France: Donald Trump’s team has vowed to sue over a biopic about his early years that includes rape, erectile dysfunction and ruthless betrayal, but the makers said on Tuesday the film allowed viewers to feel “sympathy” with the ex-president.

“The Apprentice”, which premiered on Monday at the Cannes Film Festival, traces Trump’s origins as an ambitious young property developer in 1970s and 1980s New York.

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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.

Both received glowing reviews from critics.

The film offers a nuanced account of Trump, depicted as an ambitious but naive social climber in the first half, before his decency is eroded as he learns the dark arts of dealmaking and power.

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“Donald’s team should wait to watch the movie before they start suing us,” director Ali Abbasi told reporters in Cannes.

“I don’t necessary think this is a movie that he would dislike... I think he would be surprised,” Abbasi said.

But Trump’s 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.

‘Attack, attack, attack’

The most controversial scene is that of Trump raping his first wife, Ivana, after she belittles him for growing fat and bald.

In real life, Ivana accused Trump of raping her during divorce proceedings but later rescinded the allegation. She died in 2022.

The director defended the controversial rape scene, telling AFP the alleged incident is “well known” and explains the ex-president’s character.

The most controversial scene is that of Trump raping his first wife, Ivana.

“This particular thing is very well known. This incident, Ivana Trump said it under deposition, under oath,” said Abbasi.

In real life, Ivana accused Trump of raping her during divorce proceedings but later rescinded the allegation. She died in 2022.

Asked why the scene was included, Abbasi said the movie is “about how, point by point, bit by bi. (Trump) distances himself from those human relationships that define him and that hold him in check as a human being.

“Ivana’s relationship is super-important, obviously. Ivana is someone who is very close to him.”

Abbasi was unflustered in Cannes, saying: “Everybody talks about him suing a lot of people. They don’t talk about his success rate.”

US actor Martin Donovan, Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi and Romanian-US actor Sebastian Stan poses during a photocall for the film "The Apprentice" at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 21, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

“The Apprentice” premiered while Trump is on trial in Manhattan for a tawdry scandal involving a porn star.

It comes just months ahead of the US presidential election in which Trump is expected to face Joe Biden.

“We have a promotional event coming up called the US elections that is going to help us with the movie,” joked Abbasi, suggesting it could be released around the second Biden-Trump debate in September.

“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 collecting rent from his father’s tenants.

His life is transformed by an encounter with Cohn, whose 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.

Abbasi said the film aimed at “deconstructing the mythological image” of these characters and showing them as real human beings.

“With that comes understanding. With that comes sympathy. That doesn’t necessarily mean you forgive everything they did.”

“The most despicable monster you can think of, the most reprehensible person in history, also liked a dog or fell for somebody or was nice to somebody at some point.”

‘Rock certain boats’

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

He said the film was blocked by top Hollywood executives, and it was ultimately funded by the Canadian, Irish and Danish governments.

“We couldn’t make it in the American system,” Sherman said.

“Hollywood in many ways doesn’t want to rock certain boats.”

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”.