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Jacques Audiard Emilia Perez Movie Review

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Emilia Perez | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Emilia Perez | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Risky Business: Audiard Surprises with Vibrant Genre Musical

Jacques Audiard Emilia Perez Movie Review Although it’s assembled from unlikely, even questionable sources, Jacques Audiard’s latest feature, Emilia Pérez, a genre and gender blending Mexico City set musical, is surprisingly skilled. Though destined for naysayers who will want to overlook its Almodovarian sense of soap opera (and thus requiring a certain suspense of disbelief), told as it is from the perspective of a director who is three cultural layers removed from its eponymous character, it’s a compelling odyssey of mixed tropes which coalesce into a film not only vigorous but bold. In its own blunt way, the film exemplifies the enhancing power of what musicals can be, when excessive interior emotion can be so heavy, channeling it through song breaks the artifice of traditional boundaries as an alternative way to reach a desired authenticity. Audiard once again pairs with scribes Thomas Bidegain and Lea Mysius, who together have created a compelling gangland romantic melodrama led by a swoon worthy breakout star, Karla Sofia Gascon.

Rita (Zoe Saldana) has grown weary of working for a criminal defense attorney in Mexico City, forced to use her skills assisting corrupt clients. But her allegiance to her craft gets the attention of Juan ‘Manitas’ Del Monte (Karla Sofia Gascon), a brutal cartel leader who presents her with an offer she can’t refuse—assist him in obtaining an ultra secret sex change operation from the best surgeon available and then fake his own death in return for access to wealth which will allow her to pursue career opportunities she never thought possible. Rita accepts, which means also playing the go-between with Manitas’ wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) and their two young children. After squirreling away Jessi and the kids in Switzerland for their own safety, Manitas becomes Emilia Perez, and Rita’s mission is complete. But four years later in London, Emilia approaches Rita requesting her assistance once more in fetching her children so they can live with her as their long lost aunt in Mexico. Jessi is initially suspicious, but happy to rekindle an affair with a dangerous man (Edgar Ramirez), which threatens their new stability as a makeshift family. To atone for the dirty deeds of Manitas, Emilia establishes a NGO for finding disappeared people in Mexico City with the help of Rita, together crafting a slowly growing humanitarian empire. But Emilia’s past will force a tragic reckoning.

In essence, Emilia Pérez blends high and low narrative elements which arguably won’t be to everyone’s tastes, presenting as it does a complex protagonist whose crooked moral compass makes them a compromised subject. But then again, why wouldn’t a brutal cartel leader who transforms into a philanthropic NGO businesswoman not require a narrative marching to the beat of its own drum? The essence of the film feels somewhere between trans narratives both celebrated and damned, such as Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017) and Walter Hill’s The Assignment (2016). Audiard has never attempted something quite so daring before, but his filmography bears streaks of morbidity since his days as a screenwriter, having penned the bizarre murdering dog cult classic Baxter (1989) or the 1983 Claude Miller neo-noir Deadly Circuit (and let’s not forget he also worked on 1985’s La Cage aux Folles 3). But Audiard has, nearly always, been fascinated with characters facing significant odds from all kinds of experiences and cultural backgrounds, such as Emmanuelle Devos’ blind woman in Read My Lips (2001), Tahar Rahim’s imprisoned Muslim in A Prophet (2009), Marion Cotillard’s quadriplegic killer whale trainer in Rust and Bone (2012) and Jesuthasan Antonythasan’s Sri Lankan refugee in Dheepan (2015). But with these narratives, Audiard also assumes the position of risk as an outsider, perhaps never more evident than in his silly libidinous arthouse youth culture feature Paris, 13th District (2021).

Jacques Audiard Emilia Perez Movie Review

But Emilia Perez immediately announces itself as something special, presenting a triptych of unexpectedly resourceful and fascinating women. Zoe Saldana is the film’s connective tissue, a lawyer who sees an opportunity to rise above corruption by embracing it one last time. It is, without a doubt, the most interesting performance of a career which has become defined by the stamp of Hollywood franchise filmmaking, allowing her to embrace her talents as a singer and dancer, as well as her roots as a Dominican. Likewise for Selena Gomez, the pop singer turned television star who has popped up in cult auteur fare previously (Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers, 2012) but again, is aptly tapped as a frustrated mob moll willing to resort to violence before an opportunity to at last experience love expires.

But the film’s greatest asset is Karla Sofia Gascon as the titular Emilia Pérez, who we initially meet playing Manitas. A woman who’s completely in control and utterly relishing her new life, Gascon absorbs the camera in a fashion which recalls the ravishing Fanny Ardant, forever poised, seductive and powerful. Her experience is clearly an overt portrait of how much better we’d all be if we could be our authentic selves, but the crimes of Emilia’s past life demand universal atonement, so it’s no surprise when she transforms herself into a human rights crusader. But expiation cannot be attained so easily. As we come to find, an eye for an eye might be the price to pay, especially since Emilia may be living her authentic self, but she’s not being honest with her loved ones.

Jacques Audiard Emilia Perez Movie Review

While many modern musicals formulate numbers which can tend to underwhelm, Emilia Pérez utilizes these asides as explosive emotional outbursts. Rather than utilize poetics, the lyrics are repetitive thought processes segued from dialogue of the character, often which create a sort of sublime levity, such as Saldana flying to Bangkok to interview a surgeon about all the procedures needed for sex reassignment surgery, singing clinical terms at one another, which on paper sounds like it shouldn’t work—but it does. Saldana, who gets to showcase a lovely singing voice, also has two poignant duets, including with Gascon and the Israeli doctor (Mark Ivanir) who eventually agrees to perform Emilia’s procedures. DP Paul Guilhaume (who shot Paris, 13th District as well as Mysius’ own first two features) enjoyably imbues Mexico City with the glow of a pulsating metropolis (and Lausanne as wintry netherworld), enhancing its power as a shadowy fairy tale. Emilia Pérez feels like prime material for a Broadway musical adaptation, and Gascon a luminous screen presence ready for her spotlight.

Reviewed on May 18th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 125 Mins.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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