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You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a movie musical where the words “mammoplasty, vaginoplasty, rhinoplasty” play out in song. Nor have you lived until you’ve seen that same movie musical in which Selena Gomez says the words “My pussy still hurts when I think of you.” And you’ve never seen a movie musical at all about transness that takes as bold of swings as Jacques Audiard‘s “Emilia Pérez,” which is stylistically unforgettable while missing the crucial element that makes any movie musical work: Actually good, memorable songs.

Audiard is the 72-year-old French director known ever for dipping into other worlds and genres that are far from his own as a cis white guy from Europe. His 2015 Palme d’Or winner “Dheepan” was a story of Tamil refugees who’ve fled Sri Lankan civil war for Paris. “The Sisters Brothers” was his attempt at a western comedy made within the American studio system. “Rust and Bone” was a throwback to the great romantic dramas of yore, where “A Prophet” plunged us into the Corsican mafia through the eyes of an Algerian. Audiard is never for lack of vision or daring, and that extends to the Mexican “Emilia Pérez,” starring Karla Sofía Gascón as the title trans woman, who’s abandoned her family with the help of overqualified civil defense attorney Rita (Zoe Saldana) but four years later wants them back.

'Eephus'

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The movie is always invigorating to look at thanks to cinematographer Paul Guilhaume’s swirling, 35mm camera and Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet’s movements as the film shimmies across song and dance and rhyme scheme. But the emotions ultimately don’t stick, the images only able to elicit so much feeling when the characters don’t burst with interior lives transcendent of the film’s worthy message.

‘Emilia Pérez’ (photo by Shanna Besson)

Emilia, a former cartel crime lord called Manitas in Mexico City, has enlisted Rita’s help to find a doctor to perform her gender confirmation surgery and to fly her family (including her wife played by Selena Gomez) to Switzerland under the guise that Emilia has been killed. Audiard collaborated with filmmakers Léa Mysius and Thomas Bidegain on a script that offers sparse context for Emilia’s revelation, though by the time Rita meets her, she’s already two years into hormone replacement therapy. Four years after getting Emilia’s family out of Mexico, Rita runs into her at a dinner party, where she at first doesn’t recognize her former client. Emilia and Rita trade confidences in Spanish surrounded by otherwise stuffy English-speaking well-to-dos, and Emilia rehires her former lawyer to bring back her wife Jessie (Gomez) and their two kids. But Emilia finds herself unable to confess to Jessie, who has already moved on and is really just back in Mexico City to reunite with a former flame (Édgar Ramírez), that she’s actually her husband.

With all that out of the way, you wouldn’t be wrong to think this visually witty musical drama tore pages from the book of Pedro Almodóvar. Spanish actress Karla Sofía Gascón, in a breakout role here, certainly has the flamboyant aura and styling of an Almodóvar heroine, though as a melodrama “Emilia Pérez” lacks entirely the psychological complexity that’s made Almodóvar one of the leading filmmakers behind trans stories. The music, a collaboration of French singer Camille and Clément Ducol, hardly yields earworms even as the lyrics propel Emilia’s self-determination, Rita’s hopelessness (“my love life is a desert, my professional life a sewer”), and Jessie’s (a bleach-blond-headed Gomez who doesn’t achieve “Only Murders in the Building” levels here) eventual villainy. The songs tend to hover around just a few chords, and maybe the best scene from a singing standpoint is of Gomez doing actual karaoke. Never a good sign in a movie musical, where here song and dance pleasantly erupt from nowhere, and at least refreshingly without lurching transitions that get us there.

‘Emilia Pérez’ (photo by Shanna Besson)

Right from the first shot of “Emilia Pérez,” you’re compelled to sit up and go, “OK, I’m listening, and I’m looking.” It’s commanding filmmaking. Jalet’s choreography as Rita vogues in a courtroom, “singing” (Saldana’s alto is maybe not quite that, and more of a song-speak) about all the disappointment in her life, recalls his swishy, undulating body work in “Suspiria,” where all limbs are part of the dance story at all times. Audiard deploys split screens, suspended dissolves, and stage lighting to keep “Emilia Pérez” always on its toes, and endlessly flowing forward momentum that prevents the movie from ever becoming boring. In one bravura sequence, the screen forms a triptych as Rita mitigates between Emilia and Jessie (unaware of who Emilia, now posing as Manitas’ cousin, is and was) over the phone, telling each to “calm down” in another visually propulsive musical number. But I’m not exactly tapping my toes and humming along to the memory of a beat in recollection; the songs just evaporate into the ether once it’s over.

Audiard deserves credit for his adventurousness and, in both the pejorative and non-pejorative senses of the term, cinematic allyship. It’s unclear whether he ran the film’s particular language and expression of transness up the identity flagpole, and some audiences may either have a field day with Audiard’s approach or be entirely enchanted and feel seen by it. There’s almost nothing about “Emilia Pérez” that’s conventional — until the movie unravels into a third-act bit involving a hijacking, guns, and a live human body in a trunk. Which is just a reminder of where Audiard’s head really rests all along.

Grade: C+

“Emilia Pérez” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.



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