‘Emilia Pérez’ Review: Leading Lady Karla Sofía Gascón Electrifies in Jacques Audiard’s Mexican Redemption Musical (2024)

SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains some spoilers.

Like a rose blooming amid a minefield, it’s a miracle that Jacques Audiard’s “Emilia Pérez” exists: a south-of-the-border pop opera about a most unlikely metamorphosis and the personal redemption it awakens in a stone-cold criminal.

With a Palme d’Or to his name and the cojones to tackle his third movie in a culture and language that are not his own (after “Dheepan” and “The Sisters Brothers”), the director of “A Prophet” takes audiences into the macho realm of Mexican cartels, where Manitas del Monte — a fearsome drug lord with a silver grill and a voice like gravel — wants out, not because he’s had a crisis of conscience, but because he’s decided to embrace his true self … as a woman.

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Pardon me if I’ve mixed up the pronouns there. Audiard’s dazzling and instantly divisive film — which stars Zoe Saldaña as the lawyer who helps Manitas transition and Selena Gomez as the mother of their two sons — doesn’t strictly adhere to the codes set by GLAAD and other LGBT advocates, and yet, “Emilia Pérez” emerges as a powerful, unfiltered portrait of someone who challenges several stereotypes at once. That’s a testament to leading lady Karla Sofía Gascón (who plays Manitas/Emilia) and the audacity of Audiard, who had the good sense to incorporate Gascón’s personal experience into the character.

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The filmmaker got the idea from Le Monde editor Boris Razon’s novel “Écoute,” wherein the character’s mission is but one of countless questions raised about identity (in the book, Manitas wants to become his first love, who was murdered years before). But primarily-Spanish-language “Emilia Pérez” isn’t an adaptation so much as a totally different interpretation of that out-there idea: What if you took the poster boy for toxic masculinity and made them a woman — not à la Griselda Blanco (“Cocaine Godmother”), but in such a way that eclipsed the aggressive original persona?

One of the helpful notes the trans community has shared about films such as “Girl” and “The Danish Girl” is that general audiences tend to be more preoccupied with transition itself than the people fulfilled by that process. In “Emilia Pérez,” it’s critical to the character’s journey, but just the first act of a much larger story. Who knows how society will judge Audiard’s depiction two years or two decades from now, though the project is consistent with a career spent imagining milieus far from his and immersing audiences in those worlds, without reductive psychology or judgment.

Audiard starts by introducing Saldaña’s character, Rita, a defense attorney who helps scumbags go free, justifying her misgivings through song. Overstressed and undervalued, Rita accepts a potential client’s shady proposal, which means being driven out to who-knows-where with a hood over her head. Ultra-careful in order to evade potential assassination, Manitas swears Rita to secrecy before telling her why she’s been summoned: “I want to be a woman,” growls a man who looks like he wouldn’t hesitate to have her killed. And then Manitas opens his shirt and reveals his commitment to Rita (but not the camera).

At this point in the film, my sensitivity sensors were still wary. Early on, all references to Manitas are masculine, which is true even among the gender-reassignment doctors Rita flies around the world to interview. One can easily imagine such an assignment sparking a “Some Like It Hot”-style farce about the Witness Protection Program, and the film still feels like it could go either way (toward triumph or catastrophe) during the gonzo “La Vaginoplastia” number, which suggests “Myra Breckinridge” as Busby Berkeley might have staged it. “Changing the body changes society,” Rita sings to the surgeon in Tel Aviv (played by Mark Ivanir), who finally agrees to conduct the procedure, tipping off where the story is headed.

It’s not like Manitas can tell anyone what he’s doing, counting on Rita to stage his death and relocate his family to Switzerland. In fact, when the ex-capo reunites with Rita a few years later in London — now radiant, beardless and renamed Emilia — the lawyer tenses, afraid she’s come to erase the last trace of her past. Instead, Emilia asks Rita to bring her wife/widow Jessi (Gomez) and sons back to Mexico. According to press notes, Gascón (who plays Emilia) still lives with her daughter’s mom, and a similar dynamic emerges here, as Emilia presents herself as a long-lost aunt.

The scene that played best at Cannes finds Rita watching this reunion warily, as Emilia welcomes Jessi and the kids back into her life. Will they recognize her? “You smell like Papa,” one of their sons tells Emilia in a lovely reverse lullaby. “Emilia Pérez” would have been a very different movie if Manitas had found the courage to confide in the family. Not doing so sets the stakes for the rest of the film: Can Emilia continue to serve as their guardian? What happens if Jessi, who thinks she’s dead, should run off with new flame Gustavo (Édgar Ramírez)?

The Jessi-Gustavo subplot justifies what’s sure to become the film’s anthem, Selena Gomez scorcher “El Camino,” the lyrics of which translate as “I want to love myself completely” (Clément Ducol and Camille co-wrote the film’s songs with Audiard). And where does Rita’s personal life fit into all of this? If “Emilia Pérez” weren’t a musical, audiences might not accept such a glaring oversight, and yet the form allows Audiard to exclude huge swaths of backstory — like nearly the entirety of Emilia’s criminal past. Renouncing her identity as a cartel honcho doesn’t mean she wasn’t responsible for countless murders in her previous life. Emilia wants to selectively reset what came before, spending the dirty money earned before her transition and lavishing attention on her kids while all but ignoring their mother.

Such double standards add fascinating dimensions to the film’s second half, especially after Emilia decides to start La Lucecita, an NGO designed to help grieving family members find their “disappeared” relatives. In the process, Emilia also finds love. Apart from one scene where Rita worries that Emilia’s partner (Adriana Paz) may have figured things out, Audiard doesn’t distract himself with that old trope. Again, it would have been nice to see Emilia confide in others, but the film doesn’t treat fear of discovery as a point of suspense. Instead, Audiard wonders how much people really change when they transition. In Emilia’s case, less than she’d like, but enough to inspire positive change in society.

‘Emilia Pérez’ Review: Leading Lady Karla Sofía Gascón Electrifies in Jacques Audiard’s Mexican Redemption Musical (2024)
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