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‘Emilia Perez’ Is a Transgender Cartel Musical — and Cannes’ Most Delirious Movie

By newadmin / Published on Monday, 20 May 2024 14:06 PM / No Comments

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Imagine a world in which Stephen Sondheim made Sicario. Yes, that Stephen Sondheim; yes, that 2015 thriller about the world of Mexican drug cartels. Got that? Good. Now add in Selena Gomez as the wife of a narco who, in a moment of deep grief and remembrance, utters the line, “My pussy still hurts when I think of you” — which, to be fair, sounds a lot more poetic in Spanish. She believes her husband, a major drug lord for the Los Globales cartel, had been murdered. This is not true. Rather, her spouse has faked their death so they could transition to being a woman, and is now Emilia Pérez, who runs a charity dedicated to locating victims of the drug wars. They’re also living in the same house, because “Aunt Emilia” misses their kids. And regarding our earlier reference to Sondheim: Yes, the whole thing is a musical.

A strong contender for being the wildest movie to screen at this year’s Cannes — and we’re talking about the same film festival that just gave us Megalopolis earlier in the week — Emilia Pérez is one of those films in which description on a page can’t do justice to the delirium onscreen. French director Jacques Audiard has always been a filmmaker who loves to mix it up, shift genre gears and take stylistic risks; it’s hard to believe that a single director made the greatest prison thriller ever (A Prophet), a remake of James Toback’s Fingers (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), a daffy Western (The Sister Brothers) and a romance in which Marion Cotillard is mauled by a killer whale (Rust and Bone). We admittedly did not have a Spanish-language musical about a transgender cartel boss making amends on our bingo card for him, which made this a serious left-field surprise. And, judging by the enthusiastic response that greeted the film at both the premiere and simultaneous press screening, the festival’s first big breakout hit.

It starts with a Mexico City lawyer named Rita (Zoe Saldana), who specializes in narco-related cases. Rita is extremely good at her job. She’s also burnt out, tired of seeing her incompetent (read: male) colleagues take credit for wins, and feels like she’s severely undervalued and underpaid. Rita says as much — sorry, sings as much — to a chorus of cleaners who 100-percent feel her pain. There is one person who truly see her worth, however. Manitas, one of the most vicious drug lords in the cartel world, thinks Rita can help facilitate a new identity. Or rather, she can help the gangster transition to his true identity as a woman. It’s a one-time offer, with the reward being riches beyond her imagination. She accepts the job.

Cut to four years later, when Rita is living the life of the nouveau riche in London. A woman chats her up at a swank restaurant. It takes a few minutes before Rita recognizes it’s her former client. Now known as Emilia Pérez, and played by the extraordinary Mexican actor Karla Sofía Gascón, she wants to return to Mexico to see her family again. Rita must make the necessary arrangements so Emilia can pose as a long-lost aunt. She also wants to start a foundation dedicated to helping families of the thousands of missing people who became casualties of cartel turf wars. Her old lawyer will come on a cofounder, and hopefully, they can both undo some of the damage done.

Under the guise of “Aunt Emilia,” Pérez doesn’t just return to the familial fold. She becomes a far better parent to her sons, especially now that she’s no longer burdening them — or being burdened by — stifling codes of masculinity. Manitas’ widow, Jessi (Gomez), doesn’t suspect a thing. Nor does she think that Aunt Emilia will mind if she remarries her dodgy boyfriend (Edgar Ramírez) and moves the kids to another town. Ms. Pérez is not happy with this turn of events. Which means violence is right away the corner.

Zoe Saldana in ‘Emilia Pérez.’

At the press conference the day after the film’s premiere, Audiard mentioned that he was reading Boris Razon’s 2018 novel Écoute during one of the pandemic lockdowns when he came across a brief mention in the book of a transgender drug dealer. The character was minor, but the French filmmaker became intrigued by the notion of following that person further. He began to sketch out a screenplay, which soon turned into a opera libretto. So the idea of telling Emilia’s story with music was there from the beginning.

Whether the idea to transition into numbers that slide into/borrow from Latin pop and Mexican folk corridos would help make the movie more accessible — or at the very least more of a Pedro Almodóvar-like mash-up of camp, melodrama, genre stylings and emotional gravitas — is anyone’s guess. But the result is both exhilarating and exasperating, swinging so wildly all over the map that you may want to pre-emptively wear a neckbrace before viewing.

Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and the composing duo of Clément Ducol and Camille comes up with numbers that bring a stream of tears to your eyes (such as a number in which one of Emilia’s sons sings about missing his papa while snuggling next to her) and others that will bring your jaw to the floor (“La Vaginoplastia,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about). Musical numbers that might have been culled from a “Worst of Broadway” compilation sit next to heartbreaking ballads and lyrically savvy show tunes. One of the single most compelling performances of this year’s festival entries shares screen time with Saldana bumping and grinding on tables while accusing government officials of corruption. Anyone who thinks Gomez can’t bring the pop-star pizzazz should see her sequence that goes from bedroom reverie to music-video breakdown. Anyone who thinks that aforementioned Gomez line isn’t about to become an instantly quotable is deluding themselves. There’s a fine line between self-consciously campy and unintentional, straight-up camp. You will lose sight of that line more than once here.

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We love Audiard’s work to death, and Emilia Pérez proves that he refuses to play anything safe; the equal amount of tongue-in-cheek gestures and sincerely tender exchanges makes this one of the bigger swings in his career. Yet we also wish Almodóvar was the one calling the shots here, because he would have understood how to balance those elements in a way that could make the outrageousness and the dead seriousness harmonize. It’s still a festival highlight, still a star-making showcase for Gascón, still a pointed commentary about that evil that men — specifically men — do, and still a clear crowd favorite for the Cannes cognoscenti. But man, do the bum notes here affect the overall melody.

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