‘Emilia Perez’ Review: Jacques Audiard’s Gonzo Telenovela About a Trans Kingpin Is a Home Run

Cannes 2024: The French director’s latest is a big swing that hits the ball out of the park

Zoe Saldaña in "Emilia Perez" (Credit: Saint Laurent Productions)
Zoe Saldaña in "Emilia Perez" (Credit: Saint Laurent Productions)

Going into this year’s Cannes Film Festival, expectations soared around a certain go-for-broke, no-guts-no-glory, swing from a Palme d’Or winning auteur, and on Saturday — two days after Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis” fizzled — festivalgoers got all they wanted and more in Jacques Audiard’s gonzo telenovela musical “Emilia Perez.” Turns out we had been looking at the wrong Palme d’Or winner all along.

If for nothing else, the French director’s previous Grand Prize and Palme d’Or wins for tough-guy films “A Prophet” and “Dheepan” feel especially pertinent given the startling (and delightful) swerve he offers with “Emilia Perez,” an Almodóvar-aping melodrama about a cartel kingpin’s transition to the more benevolent woman she was always hiding from the world.

That the Spanish-language film is also a full-blown musical, chock-full of deliriously choreographed numbers and ear-catching ditties about vaginoplasties and tracheal shaves would also reflect Audiard’s high perch. This the film one makes with a mantle full of prizes and zero f—-s to give.

Freed from “Avatar” mo-cap and MCU makeup, Zoe Saldana blazes across the screen as Rita, a Mexico City defense attorney used to playing second fiddle. At nights, she writes legal defenses to free her rich (and almost certainly guilty) clients as the cityscape erupts in ecstatic overture behind her. By day, she watches others claim her glory in the courtroom, commenting on her rotten lot and greater aspirations in the familiar cadence of an “I Want” number. Indeed, for all its deeply strange touches, “Emilia Perez” remains a classically structured rock-opera, and within that format Saldana shines.

The character hews a familiar path from unassertive to incandescent as her good fortune grows, fueled in no small part form a generous proposition offered by fearsome cartel boss Manitas Del Monte (Karla Sofía Gascón, a trans actress offered the rare chance to play her character pre-and-post transition). When presenting as a man and still using similar pronouns, Manitas strikes fear across the country as the drug game’s most ruthless honcho, only the tough-guy act is a façade, “he” tells Rita – or, more specifically, he sings. And by alternating spoken dialogue and song, the film’s very form underscores a common pre-transition refrain, recognizing that the deeper truths that only music can access might also reveal deeper identities hidden from the world.

Still, don’t expect “Transparent,” as the filmmaker has more interest in fantasy melodrama than the lived-in details of the trans experience. Audiard is a showman, while Manitas is rich as sin, and together those shared means send Rita on a globetrotting jaunt to find her employer the right with surgeon – ideally someone with top-notch medical acumen and low moral scruples, which probably shouldn’t be too hard, all things considered. Soon enough, Manitas fakes his death and Emilia takes the stage, and everyone rides off into the sunset… until parental longing proves too much for Emilia, so she sends for her family stowed safely away in Switzerland.

If Audiard’s tough-guy instincts can’t help but shade a first third full of cartel wheeling-dealing, by time Emilia once again shares a roof with her estranged wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) the film dives into Almodovarian reverie, playing as a sideways riff on “All About My Mother” that tracks three very different women with torrent of secrets between them. Emilia want to reconnect with a family for whom she hides her true identity; Jessi wants to move on with life, and still thinking herself a widow, hopes to do with a studly beau Gustavo (Edgar Ramirez); and Rita tries to wash away her and Emilia’s blood fortune by helping her boss start an NGO for cartel truth and reconciliation.

If this all sounds too much and over the top, it all very much is – Audiard is playing with telenova logic here, where money is abundant and interactions are always played at full blast. Through it all he cycles through every musical form, staging love-ballads and punk anthems, syncopated gunfights and one, particularly sensational number where Rita unleashes on her rich benefactors with switchblade moves at a charity gala. 

Zaldana’s stand-out number echoes the film’s central tension: Though bodies and names and genders and affects may change, can the wages of sin ever really be washed away? Should Emilia be held responsible for the carnage Manitas wrought? Is such reconciliation even possible? The themes are broad and brassy as the film that explores them, and all the better still. It was about time for someone to take such a big swing, and to hit the ball so far out the park.

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