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'Emilia Perez' Review

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June 6, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Emilia Perez premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Netflix will release it in theaters and on its streaming service later this year.

A prison drama centering on a Muslim convict; a romance between a single father and a killer whale trainer deepens after tragedy; a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior feels to France to seek a better life; two brothers chase after a gold prospector in 1850s Oregon; and a sexually-charged romantic comedy about millennial Parisians. These are the basic descriptions of the last five films directed by Paris’ own Jacques Audiard, none of which seem to share an obvious thematic link or calling card. In fact, the only thing that keeps them connected is their fate after they premiere, with all of them collecting a bevy of festival and César nominations/awards. That streak of genre maneuverability continues with Audiard’s latest work, Emilia Perez, a musical crime comedy set in modern Mexico. Based on the results, I’m sure more awards are not far behind to go along with the Best Actress and Jury Prize haul at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Those Cannes audiences may have already had their fill of pure bewilderment in the form of Francis Ford Coppola’s long-gestating Megalopolis, but Emilia Perez is the one of the pair to actually do it right. It’s a film whose on-paper plot raises several eyebrows, only to be met with more craziness as it all explodes on the screen. It doesn’t always work, but it bats a pretty high average, and almost all of the strikes are just as satisfying to watch as the hits.

Let’s start back up at the top and get ourselves reoriented. Rita Moro Castro (Zoe Saldaña) is an overworked and underpaid lawyer in Mexico City. Her victories in the courtroom are often defeats in her personal life, as no amount of work she does seems to make a difference. Her strong resume gets her noticed by the ruthless cartel leader Manitas (Karla Sofía Gascón donning incredibly convincing makeup), who, in exchange for $2 million, hires Rita to help him go through the gender reassignment surgery that he’s always dreamed of having. Years go by as Manitas becomes Emilia Perez, with Rita taking up the position of the professional guardian for Emilia’s wife (Selena Gomez) and kids, who have been in the dark about the whole operation. 

The degree to which the musical aspects would play into the narrative may have been shrouded in mystery during the announcement and production phases, but all those uncertainties are squashed within the first minute of the finished product. Saldaña is our guide through this story, with her seldom-seen musical chops being unleashed in an opening number featuring a large chorus and flashy camerawork. It’s this sequence that illustrates much of what’s to come, both from the story and performers: an extraordinary amount of dedication and sincerity to even the most outlandish of concepts.

Audiard gives maximum effort to each of the genres he’s melding together. Each of the musical sequences is bursting with a bombastic spirit, the lighting and camerawork being as expressive as the actors. Then there’s also real danger with the crime elements, which attempt to grab ahold of Mexico’s problem of missing persons and cartel-related violence. It can all feel a little silly due to the operatic fever dream of the production, but its heart is always in the right place.

Carrying that heart is Spanish trans-actress Karla Sofía Gascón. While Rita is the one finding herself falling deeper down the rabbit hole, Manitas/Emilia is the one trying to dig their way out. Gascón finds that nugget of remorse that’s needed for us to sympathize with her. She also brings the house down with some of her solo numbers. Gomez is a bit shortchanged by the structure of the story, only showing up in bits and pieces. Her pop-star presence gives her scenes a certain amount of flair that distances them from any of her other previous roles.

Musicals will be all the rage later in the year with Joker: Folie à Deux, Moana 2, Wicked, and Mufasa: The Lion King filling up the multiplexes. Save for maybe Todd Phillipps and the chaotic duo of Joaquin Phoenix and Lady Gaga, Audiard and his cast could easily lay claim to the most audacious musical of the year.

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