David Jenkins


Emilia Perez – first-look review

This ghastly musical melodrama from Jacques Audiard tells of a Mexican cartel bosses’s gender affirming surgery.

Jacques Audiard is European cinema’s perpetual under-achiever, but someone whose reliable (albeit idiosyncratic) mediocrity has always been celebrated rather than punished by the industry. We say under-achiever, because there was a time when he was in the business of punching out great, slightly strange, but serious and sophisticated movies, most notably 2001’s Read My Lips, and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

His new one, Emilia Perez, is the worst thing he’s ever done, the decidedly iffy product of a premise so cringeworthy and bizarre, that it’s almost painful to transmit to you right now. If one were attempting to categorise the film, you’d probably say it’s somewhere in between a musical and a light operetta, but Audiard doesn’t fully commit to either form. We’re introduced to underpaid, under-loved legal assistant Rita (Zoe Saldana), who is forced to bite her lip and tow the line of her corrupt bosses. The film opens on an effective, expressive single-take song-and-dance number in a bustling market street in Mexico City, and Saldana has got the juice when it comes to excelling as actor, dancer and singer. So the omens, within the first five minutes, are good…

Alas, it’s downhill from there on in, as the suggestion of Rita’s moral righteousness is instantly sidelined as Rita gladly accepts two million big ones from feared cartel boss Juan Del Monte (Karla Sofía Gascón) to privately arrange for some gender-affirming surgery so they can find comfort and peace inside the body they should’ve been born into. A whirlwind tour of far-flung private surgeries and some songs with very stupid and provocative lyrics leads her, eventually, to Tel Aviv, where she locates a surgeon willing to do the job under the on-pain-of-death circumstances of the arrangement.

And so the facially-tattooed, heavily-bearded Juan one day wakes up in a hospital bed as Emilia Perez and, underneath all the bandages, is the body she has long been yearning for. The price she has paid for this new life is complete estrangement from her young wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) and two kids. Perez puts the life of crime behind her, and cultivates a life of charitable philanthropy, founding a service that locates missing bodies that Emilia likely had a hand in disappearing in the first place. Like so much in the film, Audiard doesn’t do anything interesting with the ripe ironies here, instead he milks a few sentimental moments from it.

The plot of this thing is all kinds of idiotic, never wanting to justify itself as outwardly kitsch melodrama, but never coherent or serious enough to make any of its emotion transcend the soap operatic. In terms of how it deals with gender-affirming surgery, the trans experience, and just the sensitivities and psychology that come with such huge life choices, the film sits somewhere between the politically-archaic slasher, Dressed to Kill, and the quaintly Shakespearean Mrs Doubtfire in that Emilia’s transition is, in the end, revealed as little more than a crude plot device to suggest that this is the method a hardened criminal might employ to go deep undercover.

Visually, the film is murky and overly-digitised, there’s no sense of place or dramatic coherence. Its big finale is garbled and sudden, and seems to be the unsatisfactory knee-jerk end-game for rather a lot of Audiard pictures. Any sense of trashy allure is wholly contrived, and the film is militant in its desire have nothing interesting to say about anything. Saldana just about scrapes by on the performance front, but it’s a hard fail for everyone else, particularly the ill-served Gomez. In all, an old school, miss-fired atom bomb of a movie.

Published 19 May 2024

Tags: Cannes Jacques Audiard Selena Gomez Zoe Saldana

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