‘Emilia Perez,’ Jacques Audiard’s Genre-Defying Musical, Shakes Cannes Awake

Jacques Audiard’s new film, starring Zoe Saldaña and Selena Gomez, is a tale of redemption, transition and the tragedy of Mexico’s ‘missing people.’

Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Perez, a baroque, thrilling and unexpected film, shook the Cannes Film Festival awake during its opening week, receiving an nine-minute standing ovation and becoming a strong contender for the Palme d’Or. The award-winning French director returns to Cannes three years after presenting his intimate black-and-white film Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, 2021), and nine years after winning the Palme d’Or for Dheepan (2015). With Emilia Perez, Audiard changed gears and continents, teaming up with his accomplice, screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, to adapt a chapter of Boris Razon’s novel Écoute, about a Mexican drug-lord transitioning to become a woman. Emilia Perez is a Spanish-language musical that ingeniously intertwines the genres of thriller, melodrama, and telenovela to tell a story of redemption.

Rita (Zoe Saldaña) an overqualified lawyer frustrated by work, is hired by one of Mexico’s most powerful cartel leaders, Manitas del Monte (Karla Sofía Gascón), to assist him in his transition to become a woman. Rita’s mission is to find a surgeon and make Manitas disappear, before sending his wife (Selena Gomez) and their two children to Switzerland. Years later, missing her two sons, Manitas – now Emilia Perez – seeks Rita’s help to bring her family back together. Passing as Manitas’s long-lost cousin, Emilia begins living with her family, which is unaware of her true identity.

United by the secret they share, Rita and Emilia become close friends and allies. As Emilia becomes consciously aware of the harm she caused during her years as drug lord, she decides to create a nonprofit organization to find the ‘desaparecidos,’ the thousands of Mexicans who have mysteriously “disappeared” – a violent consequence of a country plagued by corruption and government inaction. (Last year, Mexico’s official number of such missing people tragically grew to over 100,000, according to U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances.) By finding the graves, Emilia allows hundreds of families to grieve.

Jacques Audiard, photographed during his visit to the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, by Thomas Laisné.

In the second part of the film, Audiard delves into a more intimate and political discussion, as Emilia is forced to hide who she is from the ones she loves. In one devastatingly beautiful ballad “Papa,” the youngest son tells his ‘Aunt’ Emilia how much she smells like his father. It’s simple, yet heart-wrenching. However, this camp, fantasized living situation – which, in its extravagant telenovela style, feels reminiscent of an Almodóvar film – is too good to be true, and the harmony of their strange cohabitation is doomed to fall apart.

Emotionally driven by the expertise of the high-caliber trio of leading actresses, the film keeps the audience hooked from beginning to end. Zoe Saldaña, a powerful dancer who started her career in ballet, has a hypnotic presence and impresses viewers with her fierceness and rage in the musical sequences. Combative, she inhabits her role like a graceful warrior. Franco-Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet, also known for his work in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018), was inspired by the body language and speeches of Bronx politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Rita’s dance scenes. Rhythmic lyrics by French singer Camille and the accompanying music, composed by her husband Clément Ducol, traverse different musical genres, mixing latino, pop, reggaeton, folklore and electronic music. With a desire to steer clear of classic American musical genres, Audiard masterfully succeeds in weaving music and dance organically into the scenes, participating in the narrative itself.

Learning Spanish for the role, Selena Gomez shines in two musical numbers, where her rage as a drug lord widow stuck in a gilded cage explodes. Audiard wanted to create a complex role for the star, avid to show her in a new light after being strongly affected by her documentary Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me (2022), in which Gomez reveals her battle with depression. There is a deep sensuality and softness to her character’s despair.

However, the true revelation of the film is Spanish actress Karla Sofía Gascón. Famous for her work as a Mexican TV star, Gascón struggled from prejudice as an actor after transitioning in 2018. After meeting Audiard, Gascón fought hard to convince the director she could play both Emilia Perez as a woman and Manitas del Monte as a man, a way for her to connect to her own personal tumultuous journey. During the Cannes press conference, she mentioned how difficult it was for her to leave behind the role of Emilia Perez, as she had become attached to the character she constructed.

Audiard’s cinema is often pumped by dominating alpha-male characters, including his prison drama The Prophet (2009), leading some to see this new film as an opportunistic attempt to stay in touch with contemporary ‘hype’ and feminist issues. However his 2005 thriller The Beat That My Heart Skipped already followed a young man attempting to escape a world of violence through his dreams of becoming a classical pianist, deconstructing the virile image of a young thug.

In Emilia Perez, it’s fascinating to see the filmmaker revisit the theme of violence through tropes of masculinity and femininity, though this time from the perspective of a transgender character. The film questions whether transitioning makes the character perceive violence in a different way. There is something slightly naïve about Emilia’s realization of her country’s violence and desire to ‘do good’ once she has become a woman. Yet it seems this is more a starting point to tell the story of a human being given a second chance in life, an opportunity to offer reparation.  Ultimately, Audiard tells a story he continually reinvents in each of his films: a character’s attempt to escape the inevitable circle of violence they are trapped in.

Emilia Perez is due to arrive in French cinemas on August 28.

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