Review: ‘Emilia Pérez’ Is Fearless in Its Ridiculousness

Most people at the 2024 film festival seem to love the movie, and the ones that hate it, really hate it. Photo: Shanna Besson

Fearless in its ridiculousness, Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Pérez, a cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Sicario reimagined as a musical, hit Cannes like a tidal wave Saturday night, drawing extended rounds of applause not just at its gala premiere (where standing ovations are common) but also at its press screenings (where they’re not). It remains to be seen whether this initial burst of adoration for Audiard’s ambitious film will translate to awards from the festival’s jury, but it certainly woke up a competition that had been somewhat sleepy up until now. Most people seem to love it, and the ones that hate it, really hate it; this ensures that we’ll be talking about it, and probably yelling at each other about it, long after the fest is over.

Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone, The Sisters Brothers) has said that he initially envisioned Emilia Pérez as an opera, which he based very loosely on one of the characters from French writer Boris Razon’s postmodern 2018 novel Écoute. It still has the energy of an opera: Not all of it is sung, but it all feels like it should be sung, with background voices rhythmically chanting, seemingly always on the verge of cracking out a melody. In the opening scenes, we hear singsong merchants against the dark Mexico City skyline as we follow Rita Mora Castro (Zoe Saldaña), a hard-working attorney whose clients tend to be drug lords, murderers, wealthy abusers. Shopping at the store, she practices the speech she’ll give before the jury, arguing for the exoneration of a man clearly guilty of killing his wife. She walks out onto the busy street, as an army of marchers for justice join her in song, highlighting the film’s constant, purposeful mixing of tones. During this particular number, Audiard cuts away to a random guy getting stabbed in the street, making sure we understand that he’s unafraid of dancing on the edge of bad taste (and sometimes leaping fully into it).

One night, Rita is kidnapped and whisked off to meet cartel boss Manitas (Karla Sofía Gascón), who has an odd request for her. This powerful drug lord, who’s already been taking hormone treatments for two years, wants to have gender confirmation surgery. There’s initial skepticism towards this request — after all, a number of cartel figures and mobsters have had plastic surgery to escape the law — and Audiard goes to town with musical numbers featuring patients in wheelchairs and bandages and doctors singing and dancing about various procedures and about how changing bones and skin can’t change what’s inside. Advocating for the surgery, Rita responds with her own lyrics: “Changing the body changes the soul/Changing the soul changes society/Changing society changes everything!”

Yes, it’s that kind of movie — the kind of unabashedly earnest, declamatory work that sounds on paper like the silliest thing ever made. The kind with lyrics that rhyme various operations. (“Nanoplasty! Vaginoplasty! Laryngoplasty! Chondrolaryngoplasty!”) What’s more, Audiard incorporates these musical sequences into his own style, rather than the other way around. Although much of the film has clearly been shot on a soundstage, the director hasn’t abandoned the handheld grit that marks his films. The camera drifts around the dancers and singers, remaining close, as if their rhythmic movements in unison were some sort of coincidence and not choreographed musical numbers; people don’t burst into song in this movie so much as they stumble into it. This is Audiard being Audiard, but one also wonders if the tonal unease is meant to formally embody the identity crises of the characters.

Once Manitas transitions and becomes Emilia Pérez, she asks Rita to help her reunite with her kids and wife Jessi (Selena Gomez). The kids can sense the familiarity (“You smell like papa,” they sing), but Jessi accepts that Emilia is a long-lost aunt here to help in the wake of the absence and presumed death of the family’s powerful patriarch. Now, freed from her past as a violent cartel leader, Emilia becomes an activist for “the disappeared,” the many thousands of unaccounted-for victims of the country’s brutal drug war. After all, she not only has all her old political and financial contacts, she literally knows where the bodies are buried. Rita becomes her chief partner in this endeavor, finally coming into her own self after a career of defending monsters.

The songs were created by the French duo of Celine and Clément Ducol, and there’s a hard, charging quality to the music, which reflects the style of the film. Emilia Pérez is an honest-to-god musical, but its rhythms and melodies feel like they’ve emerged from this cinematic milieu instead of being airlifted in to enliven and sweeten a dark story. And the cast is up to the challenge of making this insanity work. Sofía Gascón, a trans Spanish actor known largely for parts in telenovelas, works wonders with the toughest of roles. Before her character’s transition, she’s pure, stony menace. Afterwards, a gentle confidence emerges; she genuinely seems liberated and happy. Saldaña, a very good actor who’s often found herself either buried under CG make-up or lost in weak parts, has a welcome ferocity as Rita, almost as if she too has been liberated. Selena Gomez sings less than you’d expect, but she brings real ambiguity to the part of Jessi, whose motivations and actions become a big part of the film’s final act. (That final act, which also features Édgar Ramírez in a pretty thankless role seen in brief snatches, does in fact spin out of control — but Gomez does her best to hold it down.)

Emilia Pérez, the movie, never really lets go of its anger. Raising money at a gala for the disappeared, Rita launches into a stomping, voguing number among the assembled glitterati, pointing out their murderous hypocrisy. Emilia Pérez, the character, never really lets go of her anger, either. Though she’s now doing good in the world and has found herself transformed into a more emotionally open person, she still bosses people around and judges Jessi, her supposedly widowed and now-single wife, for staying out late. One night, they talk about what Jessi’s husband had been like. Jessi says she was crazy about her ex, but also admits to having had affairs. When Emilia asks how Manitas might have responded to that, Jessi replies, “He would have cut us into pieces and fed us to the dogs.” It’s a reminder of Emilia’s dark past, and it hints that she might never be able to fully escape it.

Look, this movie is filled with giant culture war booby traps. Beyond the political battles so often waged over trans issues, it’s also a movie — a god damned musical — made by a bunch of foreigners about Mexico’s devastating drug wars, a film in which an entire number is built around a group of soldiers loading their rifles. It’ll be interesting to see how the world outside of the festival bubble responds to it. And whenever it finally opens, we’ll probably all be too busy trying to cancel each other over this or that, in part because, despite the fact that he makes grandiose, overstuffed films, Audiard rarely holds our hand when it comes to telling us how to feel about his characters; he has a maximalist’s eye and a minimalist’s heart, which is a fascinating tension to bring into a musical. But this is also the charm of the genre, when it works. No matter how unlikely the story or complicated the characters, no matter how bizarre the concept, if it gets your toes tapping, it’s won you over.

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