‘Emilia Pérez’ Review: Four Performances of Note (Cannes)

In an unprecedented move, the Cannes Film Festival jury awarded the Best Actress prize this year to the four actresses of Emilia PérezZoe Saldaña, Selena Gomez, Karla Sofía Gascón and Adriana Paz. This is almost as startling as French writer-director Jacques Audiard making a primarily Spanish-language musical about a transgender Mexican cartel leader (and more on this later). But the jury had a point: the four main roles are so intertwined with each other and so necessary to the success of the film that one cannot really be separated out from the other.

The fact that Ms. Gascón is the first transgender actor to win an acting prize at Cannes is almost, but of course not entirely, secondary. And yet. The high drama of the concept needed the musical element to match the intensity of the emotions within – the reason why Benjamin Millepied’s similarly melodramatic Carmen also leaned very hard on its operatic and dance elements – but it should also have had a heart to match the theatrics. And this, despite the excellent and elegant performances within, Emilia Pérez simply doesn’t have.

The story of Emilia Pérez

It’s unusual for a movie to be spoilered by its own title, but here we go: junior lawyer Rita (Ms. Saldaña) is unhappy in her badly paid career, so when she receives a mysterious phone call with an offer she can refuse, it doesn’t take much consideration for her to agree to sacrifice her ethics in return. And once there’s no going back, the offer is lucrative indeed: a terrifying cartel leader has decided it is time for him to transition into his true self as a woman, and wants Rita to ensure this transformation is done with the total discretion his extreme wealth can buy.

The drug lord is married to the much younger Jessi (Ms. Gomez), with whom he has two small sons, and Rita is further tasked with ensuring their safety as well as their ignorance. All goes to plan; Rita is handsomely compensated in return, and some years later, in her new life in London, she meets a lovely Mexican lady. Well, guess who Emilia Pérez (Ms. Gascón) really is. Rita is then further shocked to learn that Emilia misses her children and her country and wants everyone to come home

The wags who have said this movie is Sicario meets Mrs. Doubtfire have something of a point, but both of those movies do a better job than here of holding their characters to account. There’s not even the slightest wish expressed by anyone for Emilia to be held accountable for her many, many, many, many, many crimes. Even Ms. Paz’s role as the sweet and frightened Epifania is incredibly alarming in this context. All the songs about the hundreds of thousands of people who have gone missing in Mexico’s drug and gang wars rather lose their meaning when they are being sung by some of the people responsible, though Mr. Audiard gives Ms. Saldaña enough songs about the pervasive corruption and misogyny of the nation that perhaps he feels blaming only one person isn’t enough. Well no, but it would be a start! 

Considering that Mr. Audiard has expressed an admiration similar to Martin Scorsese’s for criminals and other violent outcasts over the course of his career, truly the real outlier on his résumé is 2021’s Paris, 13th District, a sweet black-and-white romantic comedy about the sexual shenanigans of some pretty Parisian hipsters. Most of his movies are interested in male violence and the effect this violence has on the perpetrators, with occasional thought given to how the women caught up with those men must harden themselves in order not to be destroyed.

Mr. Audiard also changed French cinema with 2009’s A Prophet, which was one of the first mainstream French thrillers to center non-white characters, handed Tahar Rahim his career (we thank him for this), and made him a darling of the Cannes Film Festival. So in that context, Emilia Pérez is entirely of a piece, and quite frankly, so is the musical element, since Mr. Audiard’s gangsters and thugs always have a startling softness to them.

Getting Camille, a French pop musician with a noted tendency for melodrama, to do the songs was good work, and the dancing – especially in the opening number, when passers-by join Ms Saldana in a city-wide lament about honest work going unrewarded – adds a blithe and friendly aspects to these difficult topics. 

Four performances with superb acting elevate the idea of Emilia Pérez

It is always a pleasure to see Ms. Saldaña in a role where’s she not painted some alien color, and here, when she can also show off her dancing abilities and perfect Spanish, she holds the entire movie together. Ms. Gomez has the hardest part, as someone who doesn’t know what everyone else around her does, but she handles the tricky aspects of Jessi’s recklessness with aplomb and sweetness. Ms. Paz does remarkable work in a small but crucial part, too.

But even as Ms. Gascón swoops through the movie like a phoenix, driving the plot with the sheer force of her personality and her dazzling smile, it’s not wholly her movie. Without Ms. Saldaña to ground the film, Ms. Gomez to sparkle, and Ms. Paz to raise the stakes, Ms. Gascón’s performance would have foundered. And this is because of the concept of the character – a person in that position of evil power needs to lord that power over others, otherwise it is meaningless. And while the treatment of that character leaves very much to be desired, meaning that the movie cannot truly be recommended, the force of those four performances means Emilia Pérez is worth seeing to see just how far superb acting can elevate an idea.

Emilia Pérez recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Learn more about the movie at the Cannes website for the title.

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