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Zoe Saldaña in Jacques Audiard’s Crime Musical

Zoe Saldaña in Jacques Audiard’s Crime Musical

Movies that take their title from a female protagonist’s name — from Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas through Norma Rae to Vera Drake and Jackie Brown — instantly claim that woman’s rightful place at the heart of a story, often depicting struggle and sacrifice but also resilience and strength of character. The same applies to Jacques Audiard’s bracingly original crime musical Emilia Pérez, even if the woman herself doesn’t show up until some way in, when she emerges from the unlikeliest of cocoons.

The French director has always shown an adventurous spirit, switching genres with nimble assurance, and he continues to surprise in his ballsy tenth feature. Very loosely adapted by Audiard from journalist and author Boris Razon’s 2018 novel Écoute, the film dexterously spans many styles. The baseline is a drama of criminality and redemption, but then there’s an unforced current of Almodóvarian humor, along with moments of melodrama, noir, social realism, a hint of telenovela camp and a climactic escalation into suspense, ultimately touched by tragedy.

Emilia Perez

The Bottom Line

Remember her name.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Zoë Saldaña, Karla Sofia Gascón, Adriana Paz, Selina Gomez, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Ivanir
Director-screenwriter: Jacques Audiard

2 hours 12 minutes

All this is wrapped seamlessly around a sensitive core exploration of gender identity and trans liberation, channeled through a magnificent performance by Karla Sofia Gascón, a wonderful discovery in the title role. The warmth, the joyous self-realization, the complexity and authenticity, perhaps even the purification that illuminate her characterization no doubt owe much to the parallels in the Spanish star’s life — in her own words, she was an actor before becoming an actress, a father before becoming a mother.

Audiard makes a case that the movie musical is the only genre that could have contained all this, enlisting nouvelle chanson artist Camille to write the songs and her partner Clément Ducol to compose the score.

The soundtrack is a synth-heavy melange that can be ambient or anthemic, intimate in its excavation of inner feelings or defiantly declarative, at times leaning into rap. Any musical featuring a song called “La Vaginoplastia” is not playing it safe. Belgian modern dance choreographer Damien Jalet complements the songs with suitably eclectic moves for solo performers or groups.

Starring alongside Gascón, Zoë Saldaña has never been better. She plays Rita, a junior criminal defense attorney with a boss who makes extensive use of her sharp legal mind and writing skills but takes all the credit. Her conflicted feelings about making a living by clearing the names of the guilty are explored as she moves among crowds in the Mexico City streets and markets and protest marches, while in reality sitting in her apartment typing away at her laptop. She sings of her frustration again soon after, dancing with a team of cleaning women in pink workwear.

Her talents seem to have been recognized, however, by a mysterious caller with a low growl of a voice, offering her a chance to become rich. After overcoming her hesitation, Rita goes to the designated meeting point and gets bundled into a car with a black bag over her head.

She’s terrified to find herself sitting face to face with notorious cartel leader Manitas Del Monte (Gascón), who has wiped out most of the competition in the synthetic drug trade and made strategic political alliances but also enemies. Manitas tells Rita that once she hears his plan there’s no going back.

Fearfully agreeing, she’s startled to learn that the sweaty criminal with the stringy hair, scruffy beard and mouthful of gold teeth has been receiving female hormone therapy for two years and is ready to complete the gender-affirming process. Rita is tasked with flying all over the world to find the best surgeon while maintaining absolute discretion. Not even Manitas’ wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) or kids can know.

Rita becomes the point person in the plan, brokering a meeting with top surgeon Dr. Wasserman (Mark Ivanir) and then, once Manitas’ staged death makes the news, whisking the legitimately grieving Jessi and their children off to Switzerland for their safety, with new identities. That completes Rita’s job, leaving her with a hefty sum of money deposited in international accounts.

One of the movie’s strengths is the delicacy with which it treats Emilia’s transformation, from the tears of happiness leaking out of her bandaged face to the empowerment of saying her new name out loud and practicing introducing herself. Earlier, when Wasserman expresses skepticism about being able to change the soul, Emilia explains that she has always been two people, her real self and Manitas, the criminal in a world that’s a pigsty. Her voice becomes notably softer and sweeter in a beautiful song about the desire to be “Her.”

With Emilia’s true self released and her criminal past behind her, the movie takes a number of interesting swerves, some funny, some stirringly romantic and some alarming.

First up, she puts herself in Rita’s path again, turning up in London where the former lawyer is living a well-heeled existence. Their first meeting as two women is a delightful scene, with Rita at first failing to recognize the elegant lady speaking to her in Spanish. Emilia has realized she can’t live without her children so she assigns Rita to bring Jessi and the kids back to Mexico City to live in her luxury compound. Emilia passes herself off as a cousin of Manitas who promised to take care of them.

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Next, an encounter in a café with a woman handing out flyers about her missing son opens a window to atonement, helping families of the country’s thousands of desaparecidos to find closure. Rita tries to extricate herself and get back to London, but ends up serving as Emilia’s strategic partner in an enterprise that takes on a life of its own. There’s a pleasing symmetry in the extent to which Rita’s invaluable contribution is acknowledged, in ways it never was by male bosses.

It’s through her charity work that Emilia, in another standout scene, meets the aptly named Epifania (Adriana Paz), an abused wife who helps her rediscover the rewards of love and tenderness and desire.

But her new happiness is threatened when Jessi rekindles a relationship with the shady Gustavo (Édgar Ramirez) and starts chafing at the constrictions of Emilia’s family arrangement, steering the plot in dark directions.

It’s highly probable that some will find the film too changeable to feel cohesive. But the very fluid nature of Audiard’s storytelling is a superb fit for the emergence of Emilia from a half-life into a wholeness in which she can finally know who she is. Gascón conveys this gradual adjustment with such gentle poignancy and generosity of spirit that it’s easy to see why Rita seems able to forget about the person Emilia was before.

Saldaña deftly guides Rita through her own less dramatic changes as she steps up to tackle problems large and small, while building a sisterhood with Emilia. Considering that their association started out as that of a drug kingpin with a hired hand, a real connection develops and it’s amusing to watch Rita keep Emilia in line. After being reunited with her children, albeit in the guise of a previously unknown relative, Emilia is so effusive in her affections that Rita curtly reminds her, “You’re their aunt, not their mother.”

Gomez has a less central role but she plays both the hard edges and the vulnerability of a woman whose life has been uprooted twice and who needs to find her own happiness, even if it sets her on a dangerous path. A Mexican friend tells me that her Spanish is terrible and her accent a mess, but Gomez doesn’t let that inhibit her performance. Fans of her music might be disappointed that she has relatively few songs, but she does get a banger performed as a karaoke duet with Gustavo and then solo on the end credits.

Ramirez is solid in a minor role, which is another way in which Audiard seems inspired by Almodóvar, letting the women take up all the space.

Shot by Paul Guilhaume mostly in a Paris studio with a small amount of Mexico location work, the movie looks terrific — never too slick, with a slight rough-edged quality that adds to its appeal. The camerawork is loose and supple, the moody textures of the many night scenes are effective and the use of vibrant color is invigorating.

Some Francophile cinema fans keep hoping that Audiard while make another searing drama like A Prophet or Rust and Bone, but any filmmaker who declines to repeat himself and instead keeps experimenting and pushing in new directions should be applauded. With Emilia Pérez, he has made something fresh, full of vitality and affecting, held aloft by its own quietly soaring power.

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