Cannes 2024 review: Emilia Pérez (Jacques Audiard)

Emilia Pérez is a colossal misfire and a low point in Audiard’s career.”

Years from now we will hopefully get the story of how the person that greenlit Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Pérez was held at gunpoint by a Mexican drug lord. Or high on the man’s product. Because to give the thumbs up to something as audacious as this film is to be praised, certainly because the premise at face value really shouldn’t work.

And it doesn’t. Audiard can’t be faulted for trying something different, and to make an instant camp classic is in a way an achievement, but there is no plane of existence on which Emilia Pérez can be called ‘good’. Entertaining, to an extent, and while you are on this wild ride you scream along, but once the lights go up and you have more than a minute to think about it, the only conclusion can be that almost everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

And how could it not, with such a premise. Manitas, the leader of a powerful Mexican cartel, enlists a junior lawyer to find him the best surgeons so he can undergo a sex change, because deep down he always wanted to be a woman. He sends his wife and kids to Switzerland and vanishes from the face of the earth. Four years later the lawyer, Rita, crosses paths with Emilia Pérez, who after some idle chitchat reveals herself to be the former drug lord. She wants to see her kids again, and arranges for Rita to bring wife and kids back to Mexico, to their ‘auntie’. But blood is thicker than water, and jealousy raises its ugly head when the wife gets a lover and wants to move the kids out of the house.

Emilia, to soothe her conscience over the countless deaths she was responsible for, also starts an NGO that traces people missing in Mexico’s ever-raging drug wars, with Rita as her second-in-command. During this work she falls in love with a woman, but that love isn’t going to last long, as the wife and her boyfriend kidnap Emilia to extort money.

And then imagine all of that as a musical.

That is also where the problems start. The songs aren’t very memorable, or even good; as Rita travels to Bangkok and India to find a surgeon willing to undertake the dangerous task of turning a ruthless criminal into an attractive woman, the song-and-dance number about penises and vaginas is straight out of a musical so far off-Broadway we’re in the Hudson River. Most songs are not so much sung as they are whispered, primarily because the main cast can’t really sing, and that includes Selena Gomez as Emilia’s wife (shout out to Adriana Paz as Emilia’s love interest Epifanía; she is the only one that can hold a tune).

Gomez fails to replicate her only memorable on-screen role (in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers), miscast as the wife of Manitas/Emilia. Zoe Saldana as Rita is de-glammed to such an extent that she disappears in a movie where she has top billing. She gives it her all, certainly in her musical numbers, but the character has nothing to work with and functions more or less as the straight man (no pun intended) to the larger-than-life titular character.

Which brings us to the only thing that does work, trans actress Karla Sofía Gascón as Emilia. She imbues the character with sadness and steely determination, and while the film builds her up as larger-than-life indeed, Gascón shines in the smaller moments she is allowed. The trans experience itself is sadly played as a farcical complication once Gomez’s Jessi moves back in, with moments of comedic annoyance on Emilia’s part. The love affair between Emilia and Epifanía is the most honest show of interest the film has in queerness, and Gascón and Paz do lovely work, but sadly their trysts are given little screentime.

Audiard, who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain and Léa Mysius, must be commended for trying something different, and going by the reaction at the end of the press screening that something different did really work for some people. But somebody who comes up with lines like “My pussy still hurts just thinking of you” should probably not be allowed to put pen to paper ever again. Emilia Pérez is a colossal misfire and a low point in Audiard’s career, a film that shows very little insight into (or interest in) the experience of the trans woman it puts front and center, and has no idea what to do with its ostensible lead character.

(c) Image copyright: Shanna Besson