Photograph: Cannes Film Festival/Shanna Besson
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Emilia Pérez

3 out of 5 stars

Selena Gomez and Zoe Saldaña star in cinema’s first gender confirmation cartel thriller – with songs

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

Imagine Pedro Almodóvar directing Sicario and you’re close to the tenor of this exuberant cartel-thriller-stroke-musical – which, as if those elements weren’t heady enough, comes with a tender trans twist. That’s no slight on its actual director, Jacques Audiard, whose films tends are less authored but just as richly humanist as the Spaniard’s. It’s just so unlike anything the Rust and Bone and A Prophet director has done before. Or, really, anyone has.

Zoe Saldaña is set up as the story’s heart, a hard-striving Mexico City lawyer called Rita whose professional woes are introduced through rabble-rousing musical numbers. Smart and capable, but wasting her talents getting powerful, abusive men off the hook, she agrees to a covert meeting that puts her in front of a ruthless cartel boss called Manitas del Monte.

But Rita is not the angel you’d expect – her actions are humane, but also unethical and illegal – and the brooding, grill-wearing Manitas is not your conventional ruthless crime boss. Desperate to escape the shackles of his assigned sex, he needs Rita’s help to arrange gender confirmation surgery and get his wife (Selena Gomez) and kids into hiding. Obviously, there’s a shallow grave for her if she slips up. 

Imagine Pedro Almodóvar directing Sicario and you’re close to its tenor

Saldaña is striking in a role that showcases her dancing and vocal range (a reminder that she once played Nina Simone on screen). But it’s trans Spanish actress Karla Sofía Gascón who steals the show as the hard-bitten Manitas and the much more contented post-surgery self, Emilia Pérez. Her journey from turmoil to self-realisation is very moving.

A structural problem pops up when Rita drifts towards the story’s fringes, and Audiard’s script (co-written with Thomas Bidegain and Léa Mysius) never fully hands the reins over to the Emilia character. When things go full cartel thriller in the third act, that lack of a clear point of view fatally weakens the emotional stakes.

The musical numbers work… mostly. Audiard opens with a couple of songs (written by ex-Nouvelle Vague vocalist Camille) to sell you into the conceit, with Rita grumbling about her lot like she’s in a white-collar version of Les Misérables. After a musical lull in the middle stretch – bar one Busby Berkeley number in a Thai cosmetic surgery hospital (as painful as it sounds) – the ending redeploys the device to stirring effect. Belgian dancer Damien Jalet’s choreography is snappy and seamless. Who knows, maybe we’ll see Emilia Pérez on Broadway one day.

Emilia Pérez premiered in the Cannes Film Festival.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Jacques Audiard
  • Screenwriter:Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Léa Mysius
  • Cast:
    • Edgar Ramirez
    • Selena Gomez
    • Zoë Saldana
    • Karla Sofia Gascón
    • Adriana Paz
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