‘Emilia Pérez’ Review: Zoe Saldaña, Selena Gomez, And Karla Sofia Gascón Shine In Jacques Audiard’s Queer Crime Musical

Movies named after their female protagonists, such as Mildred PierceStella DallasNorma RaeVera Drake, and Jackie Brown, place these women at the heart of their stories. These films often depict struggles, sacrifices, resilience, and strength. Jacques Audiard’s innovative crime musical Emilia Pérez follows this tradition, even though the titular character takes a while to appear, eventually emerging from an unexpected transformation.

French director Jacques Audiard is known for his adventurous spirit and genre-switching prowess. His tenth feature film, loosely adapted from Boris Razon’s 2018 novel Écoute, continues to surprise and captivate audiences. Emilia Pérez spans multiple styles: a criminal drama with redemption at its core, infused with Almodóvarian humor, melodrama, noir, social realism, telenovela camp, and a suspenseful climax tinged with tragedy.

Central to the film is a sensitive exploration of gender identity and trans liberation, brought to life through a stunning performance by Karla Sofia Gascón. Her portrayal is marked by warmth, joyous self-realization, complexity, and authenticity. The parallels to Gascón’s own life—“an actor before becoming an actress, a father before becoming a mother”—add depth to her character.

Audiard argues that the musical genre uniquely captures the film’s multifaceted narrative, enlisting nouvelle chanson artist Camille to write the songs and her partner Clément Ducol to compose the score. This combination of elements creates a film that is both deeply moving and visually captivating.

The soundtrack in Emilia Pérez is a synth-heavy blend that shifts between ambient and anthemic, moving from intimate explorations of inner feelings to boldly declarative statements, even venturing into rap. Any musical that features a song titled “La Vaginoplastia” is clearly unafraid to push boundaries. Belgian modern dance choreographer Damien Jalet complements the eclectic soundtrack with dynamic choreography for solo performers and groups.

Zoë Saldaña delivers a standout performance as Rita, a junior criminal defense attorney. Rita’s sharp legal mind and writing skills are heavily utilized by her boss, who takes all the credit. Her internal conflict about defending the guilty is poignantly portrayed as she navigates the bustling streets and markets of Mexico City and participates in protest marches, while in reality, she’s often alone in her apartment, typing away at her laptop. She expresses her frustration in song, dancing with a team of cleaning women in pink workwear.

Rita’s talents catch the attention of a mysterious caller with a low, growling voice, offering her a lucrative opportunity. Despite her initial hesitation, Rita agrees to meet and is soon abducted, finding herself face to face with the infamous cartel leader Manitas Del Monte (Gascón). Manitas, who has eliminated most of his competition in the synthetic drug trade and made strategic political alliances, reveals a surprising secret: he has been undergoing female hormone therapy for two years and is ready to complete the gender-affirming process. Rita is tasked with finding the best surgeon for the procedure while maintaining complete discretion, even from Manitas’ wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) and their children.

As the point person in this delicate plan, Rita arranges a meeting with top surgeon Dr. Wasserman (Mark Ivanir). After Manitas’ staged death makes headlines, Rita ensures the safety of Jessi and the children by relocating them to Switzerland with new identities, completing her job and earning a substantial financial reward.

One of the film’s strengths is its sensitive portrayal of Emilia’s transformation. From the tears of happiness streaming from her bandaged face to the empowerment she feels when saying her new name and practicing introductions, the film captures these moments with grace. When Dr. Wasserman questions the possibility of changing the soul, Emilia beautifully explains that she has always been two people: her true self and Manitas, the criminal. This revelation is conveyed in a touching song about her longing to be “Her.”

With Emilia’s true self finally free and her criminal past behind her, the movie embarks on a series of intriguing twists, blending humor, romance, and moments of tension.

Emilia’s story continues to unfold in surprising ways. She reconnects with Rita in London, where Rita is now enjoying a well-heeled lifestyle. Their first meeting as two women is a delightful scene, marked by Rita’s initial failure to recognize the elegant lady speaking to her in Spanish. Emilia, unable to live without her children, enlists Rita to bring Jessi and the kids back to Mexico City, where they will live in her luxury compound. Emilia poses as a cousin of Manitas, committed to fulfilling a promise to take care of them.

An encounter in a café with a woman distributing flyers about her missing son opens a new chapter of atonement for Emilia, as she begins helping families of the country’s thousands of desaparecidos find closure. Though Rita tries to return to her life in London, she becomes Emilia’s strategic partner in an ever-evolving enterprise. The film highlights the pleasing symmetry in how Emilia acknowledges Rita’s invaluable contributions, a stark contrast to how her male bosses treated her.

Emilia’s charity work leads to a significant meeting with Epifania (Adriana Paz), an abused wife who helps Emilia rediscover love, tenderness, and desire. However, this newfound happiness is threatened when Jessi rekindles a relationship with the shady Gustavo (Édgar Ramirez) and chafes at the limitations of Emilia’s family arrangement, steering the plot into darker territories.

Some might find the film’s fluid storytelling disjointed, but this approach beautifully mirrors Emilia’s journey from a fragmented existence to a complete sense of self. Gascón’s portrayal of Emilia’s gradual transformation is marked by gentle poignancy and a generous spirit, making it easy to understand why Rita can overlook who Emilia used to be.

Zoë Saldaña navigates Rita’s own less dramatic but significant changes with finesse. As Rita addresses various challenges, she forms a sisterhood with Emilia. Their relationship, which began as a drug kingpin and her hired hand, evolves into a genuine connection, with Rita often keeping Emilia grounded. After reuniting with her children under the guise of an unknown relative, Emilia’s exuberant affections prompt Rita to remind her, “You’re their aunt, not their mother.”

Selena Gomez, in a less central role, balances the hard edges and vulnerability of Jessi, a woman uprooted twice who is in search of her own happiness, even if it leads her down a dangerous path. While some note her imperfect Spanish and accent, Gomez’s performance remains unaffected. Fans of her music may be disappointed by her limited songs, but she delivers a standout performance in a karaoke duet with Gustavo and a solo number during the end credits.

Édgar Ramirez is solid in his minor role, and his limited screen time is another nod to Almodóvar’s influence, allowing the women to dominate the narrative.

Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume captures the film’s essence with a mix of studio shots in Paris and some on-location work in Mexico. The film’s slightly rough-edged aesthetic enhances its appeal, with loose and supple camerawork, effective moody night scenes, and vibrant colors that invigorate the visual experience.

While some Francophile cinema enthusiasts might yearn for another searing drama like A Prophet or Rust and Bone from Audiard, his refusal to repeat himself and his commitment to experimentation deserve applause. With Emilia Pérez, Audiard has created something fresh, vibrant, and deeply affecting, propelled by its own quietly soaring power.

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