Cannes 2024 review: ‘Emilia Pérez’ — Jacques Audiard wows with Palme d’Or frontrunner

Cannes 2024 review: 'Emilia Pérez' - Jacques Audiard wows with Palme d’Or frontrunner

You are not ready for this one…

Cannes mainstay Jacques Audiard returns to the Competition with a Spanish-language melodrama about Mexican cartel boss Manitas (Karla Sofía Gascón), who wants to become a woman. 

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In order to do so undetected from the criminal underworld, he kidnaps a lawyer, Rita (Zoé Saldaña), who is tired of defending violent husbands in a corrupt system that leaves “a taste of shit” in her mouth. She is tasked with finding the right doctor to perform the multitude of surgical procedures, and soon understands that this life-changing transformation isn’t about disappearing to evade authorities but to affirm a new identity Manitas has always dreamt of. Even if it means leaving his wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) and two sons behind.

“You want to change your life or your gender?” Rita asks Manitas.

“What’s the difference?”

Oh, and this already eccentric tale of emancipation, identity, corruption and organised crime is a musical.

Yep, it’s Sicario on Broadway, a full-blown operatic telenovela featuring a dozen choreographed song-and-dance numbers written by Clément Ducol and French musician Camille.

On paper, Emilia Pérez sounds like too much to take, a hot mess that could rival the catastrophic folly Francis Ford Coppola gave us this year with Megalopolis. Hats off to Audiard who, at 72, delivers something no one could have predicted. Having previously won the Palme d’Or in 2015 for Dheepan, his new offering is a bold and brilliant swing for the fences, a perfectly orchestrated folly with a fully realised vision that never plays it safe.

Inspired by a chapter in Boris Rason’s novel «Écoute» and produced by fashion house Saint Laurent — the first luxury brand to include film production in its activities — Emilia Pérez is invigorating and gripping in all the right ways. Audiard manages to confidently balance the knowingly kitschy aspects of the musical genre (one number set in a clinic has “Rhinoplasty! Mammoplasty! Vaginoplasty!” as a chorus) with some touching character-driven moments, without forgetting to thrill you and address socially-charged hot-button topics along the way.

Seriously, how the maverick Frenchman has pulled this off is nothing short of genius, and may very well earn him his second Palme d’Or.

The film boasts an enlivening cinematography and costume design, as well as a set of equally dynamic performances. Saldaña shines brightly and is given the chance to flex her vocal skills, while Gomez impresses in a role that could have been too much to handle for a performer whose big screen credentials have yet to be celebrated. 

But of course, the show belongs to Spanish transgender actress, Karla Sofía Gascón, who plays both Manitas and Emilia. She nails the “born in a pigsty” toxic masculinity of the man who believes a gender reset will offer up redemption, and excels as the touching but tough Emilia, who actively attempts to undo some of the wrongs she was responsible for by creating an NGO to help people find the whereabouts of their kidnapped loved ones. There’s power, pathos and earnestness seeping through every moment of Gascón’s performance, and the double-act she and Saldaña go on to form post-surgery is magnetic to watch.

Fans of musicals may be disappointed by the fact the two-minute numbers lack truly catchy hooks. However, showstoppers aren’t what Emilia Pérez is going for. The songs and choreographies serve to propel the story and characters forward, as well as underscore the film’s thematic linchpin, revealed early on in a warning the doctor gives Rita: “The body can change, the soul does not.”

Rita retorts: “Changing the body changes the soul changes society.”

You’ll have to wait to find out who’s right. 

And we’ll have to wait a little longer to find out if the jury thinks Emilia Pérez has what it takes to win this year’s Palme. We’ve got a good feeling about this one… 

Emilia Pérez premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in Competition.


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