A Mexican drug-lord undergoes gender reassignment in Jacques Audiard’s stylish Spanish-language musical

Emilia Perez

Source: Pathe

‘Emilia Perez’

Dir/scr Jacques Audiard. France. 2024. 132mins

A Mexican cartel kingpin’s gender reassignment propels Jacques Audiard’s sensitive Spanish-language musical – the seasoned French director’s first foray into the genre. It’s a modern melodrama that dances through a moral maze, sometimes uncomfortably so. Yet, coming from a filmmaker who has always been preoccupied with the roots and the dynamics of male violence, it poses an intriguing central question. If a person has gender-affirming hormone therapy and surgery to be what they know they are, does it change other things about them? Does it rinse out the coercive control, the brutality?

Transgender Spanish star Karla Sofia Gascon is the film’s bedrock

One of three Competition entries in Cannes this year to be co-produced by fashion house offshoot Saint Laurent (alongside The Shrouds and Parthenope), the entirely studio-shotEmilia Perez turns emotions into dazzling colour wheels. It’s drunk on fabrics, in love with texture. At times – for example in the interior design of the luxurious Mexico City house that dominates the second half of the film – it feels like Audiard is channeling the spirit of Pedro Almodovar. Solid critical buzz alongside the presence of stars Zoe Saldana and Selena Gomez should drive interest in this addition to the arthouse musical niche.

Saldana has both a strong voice and a strong presence as Rita, a smart lawyer kept down by her gender and darker skin, whose job requires her, as she says on the phone to her mother, to “eat shit” – for example by persuading a jury to return a not guilty verdict on a wife killer. One song later, and somewhat abruptly given her probity, she agrees to a meeting with the promise of making a pile of money.

Having been hooded, she is taken to meet one of Mexico’s most feared men, cartel boss Manitas del Monte (Karla Sofia Gascon), who has spotted Rita’s talent and requires her to perform a little service for him. He wants to become a woman, and asks her to find him the best clinic, the most discreet surgeon. And then, when all this is done, he wants her to take his wife Jessi (Gomez, sparking on all cylinders) and two young sons to safety in Switzerland, while he arranges to disappear and re-emerge, like a butterfly, as ‘Emilia Perez’.

Transgender Spanish star Gascon, playing both Manitas and Emilia, is the film’s bedrock. There is pride, vulnerability and pathos in her take on Emilia, but there’s also a steeliness in the character that makes for a fascinating mix. This is is given shape and form in the jagged botanical motifs of the covetable Saint Laurent dresses and robes she wears as Emilia who, when she meets up with Rita again after four years, has learned to bear herself with poise and grace. A chance meeting with the mother of a missing person leads Emilia to team up with Rita to set up a nonprofit designed to help loved ones search for the victims of cartel violence – many of whom Manitas had a hand in killing. 

The score by French chanteuse Camille (who wrote the lyrics) and her life partner, composer Clement Ducol, is less striking than the dark rock-opera vortex of song that Sparks created for Leos Carax’s Annette, to cite another arthouse musical.  But Annette was almost entirely sung-through, whereas Emilia Perez navigates a deft course between the spoken and the sung: lines sometimes modulate from one to the other, taking tentative flight in the course of a sentence, such as when Rita goes to see an Israeli plastic surgeon played by Mark Ivanir.

Showstoppers are mostly avoided: instead, the lyrics deal in the everyday (the megaphone chant of a scrap metal dealer, a room of gender reallocation patients who sing “mammoplasty! vaginoplasty!”), while choreography hews to mood and message. At a fundraising gala held by Emilia’s NGO, for example, Rita sings bitter denunciations of the assembled guests while working the tables, as the corrupt ministers and other compromised donors jerk like zombie puppets. 

Production companies: Why Not Productions, Page 114, 

International sales: The Veterans, lvanderstaay@goodfellas.film

Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Jacques Audiard, Valérie Schermann, Anthony Vaccarello

Cinematography: Paul Guilhaume

Production design: Emmanuelle Duplay

Editing: Juliette Welfling

Music: Camille, Clement Ducol

Main cast: Zoe Saldana, Karla Sofia Gascon, Selena Gomez, Adriana Paz, Edgar Ram