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Emilia Pérez Film Review: Audiard the Audacious

A woman looks at another woman, both sitting at the back of a cab, in the film Emilia Pérez

Emilia Pérez is about as unlikely as a musical gets, but bombastic performances and direction make it a very memorable watch.

Director: Jacques Audiard
Genre: Musical, Comedy, Crime
Run Time: 130′
Cannes Premiere: May 18, 2024

Step aside, Megalopolis. Cannes just found its new queen of intoxicating lunacy, and her name is Emilia Pérez. The tale of a Mexican drug lord seeking a sex change doesn’t scream out to be a musical, but Jacques Audiard has made one anyway, despite never having done so before.

The French director never shies away from a challenge. After forays into English and Tamil, Audiard hops to Mexico City for his Spanish language debut, and throws himself into the staging of this most unlikely sing-song. That any of it works at all is a miracle, but it gets by on sheer chutzpah.

As a story, Emilia Pérez is pure Audiard. As a screenwriter and filmmaker, he is forever focused on characters driven by transcending the constraints placed upon them. Whether those constraints are imprisonment (A Prophet), serious injury (Rust and Bone) or unfulfilling relationships (Paris, 13th District), Audiard brings their frustrated energy to the screen in primal expressions of rage and desire, but always with hope bubbling in the background. The film centres on two very different people desperate to break free from very different shackles.

We’re introduced to defence lawyer Rita (Zoe Saldaña) as she prepares briefs for a client she has no wish to defend. Her frustrations at helping domestic abusers bubbles up in the next scene, when the street she’s walking down erupts into song. The passers-by dance and contort around Rita as she belts out the first of a host of energetic songs, with fiery lyrics written by chanteuse Camille, and a percussion-driven score by Clément Ducol. If you walk into Emilia Pérez unaware that it is a musical, it’s about this point that your jaw will drop, and will scarcely leave the floor for the two hours to follow.

Emilia Pérez keeps its audience on its toes by switching in and out of its musical sensibilities with whiplash-inducing speed. It’s not long after the opening number that Rita is abducted in the dead of night in a sequence that belongs in Narcos. She is brought to Manitas Del Monte (Karla Sofía Gascón), a cartel head with a very unique proposition. He wants to enlist Rita to make all the necessary arrangements for Manitas to escape the cartel life, undergo reassignment surgery and become Emilia Pérez. Audiard is no stranger to a gritty thriller, but in the next scene Rita is jetting off to Thailand to meet doctors and ask about the risks and logistics of vaginoplasty, and all through song. The heightened emotions and tonal whiplash at work are straight out of a telenovela. Whether you can take the song’s point seriously is secondary to it being memorable.

Zoe Saldana wears a red suit and dances in a dark room, with a table behind her, in the film Emilia Pérez
Emilia Pérez (Saint Laurent Productions / Cannes Film Festival)

Manitas fakes his death, Rita completes her task, and the transition is a success. However, Rita and Emilia grow to be close friends, and her new identity sees Emilia wish to make amends for some the crimes committed in her past life. If anyone wishes to find this representation of trans experience reductive for the sake of a plot, they could do so, but it’s not quite swallowable on its own terms either. Subplots about a charity for identification of cartel victims, Emilia’s children and Manitas’ estranged wife Jessi (an intense Selena Gomez) are laid out in song, with Audiard shooting with spot lighting, intense sweeping camera moves and hectic editing. Emilia Pérez feels like the work of someone guessing how a musical should be made. It’s effective in itself, though the backing dancers don’t always get a look in, while the sound mix drowns out the lyrics on more than a few occasions.

Despite these technical issues, the camera is always pulled back to the intense commitment of the cast. Saldaña gives her best performance yet as Rita, selling her commitment to her unlikely new friend in every high note and every choreographed fling of her arms. Gomez impresses in her supporting turn too, but Gascón is the true star here. She sells all the unlikely plot developments of Emilia Pérez’s second and third acts, with enthusiasm masking real vulnerability. A scene in which her daughter sings about how ‘auntie’ Emilia smells like Papa is a heartbreaker, with Gascón selling the sadness in silence while letting the song play out. The role is a gift for Gascón, and she is riveting.

For all the energy of its cast and director, Emilia Pérez simply won’t be for everyone. It’s melodramatic, overplotted and occasionally silly, but there’s no doubt that’s the register for which Audiard is aiming. Emilia Pérez may not be subtle, but it will be remembered. Coppola would probably admire it.

Emilia Pérez premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2024. Read our review of Paris, 13th District and Cannes 2024 Grand Prix Winner All We Imagine as Light!

Emilia Pérez Trailer (K2 Movies)
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