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Jacques Audiard’s Crazy But Marvelous Musical

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On paper, it looks mad as a loose wheel. A largely Spanish-language musical about a Mexican druglord having a sex change, featuring onetime Disney teen star Selena Gomez as a gangster’s wife: nobody could deny director and writer Jacques Audiard’s giddy determination to do something different, but how could Emilia Pérez be anything but a hot mess? But here is it is on the screen, a musical marvel. Of course it’s crazy, but Audiard has set up his impossible conjuring trick and made it work.

Emilia Pérez fires up immediately with an eccentric chanson about consumption – “we buy washing machines; we buy microwaves” – that literally sets the tone for what will follow. Rita Moro Castro (Zoe Saldaña) would love to consume a little more; she is a junior barrister flatlining as her boss’ more capable helpmate. Her story is told swiftly: Saldaña delivers a deft dance with the office cleaning women, and a dynamic song in the courtroom about the moral quandary of defending a man who pushed his wife off their balcony. When a breathy call from a stranger suggests she could earn a good deal more money doing a job for him, it is easy enough to believe she would be tempted. As the cleaners sing in sprightly chorus, what does she have to lose?

Enter Manita Del Monte, the leader of a criminal cartel, for his future life. Manita has unthinkable amounts of money stashed in Swiss bank accounts but still likes to hang with his homies, drinking on old car seats somewhere out in the desert while his beloved children dance with his posse of killers. Nobody would mistake him for a woman. His voice is rasping, his beard disheveled and his approach to recruitment strikingly direct: he has his hombres put a bag over Rita’s head and kidnap her. Discretion must be enforced, given Manita’s incendiary secret. He has always wanted to be a woman. Now, having seen how resourceful Rita is in court, he wants her to help set him up with a sex change.

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Not that it is just a sex change. As Emilia Pérez, Manita can become any kind of woman he wants. INFLuenced by Rita’s friendship, she becomes a public benefactor, presiding over an organization tracing the disappeared: people killed by cartels like the one she owned. Except that, as Emilia discovers, a leopard can change only so many spots. Years after her transition, she still longs for her children and is determined to bring them to her side. Rita, by now a lawyer moving in wealthy circles in London, is summoned to fix it.

Audiard has always worked very deliberately across genres; he followed the urban thriller The Beat My Heart Skipped with Rust and Bone, a relationship drama, then took on the Western in The Sisters Brothers. In 2016 he won the Palme D’Or with Dheepan, a sympathetic slice of social realism about illegal immigrants. The musical is a deceptively rigorous form, trammeled by its inherent artificiality. People don’t usually burst into song in the street, still less while discussing possible procedures at a Thai plastic surgery clinic. Emilia even manages to muster a song from beneath several layers of post-operative bandaging.

None of this ever seems ridiculous, however, because Audiard leans into its conventions; rather than bending his provocative story to fit it, he bends the form itself. From the very beginning, when we see the lights of Mexico City dissolve into fairy lights around the sombreros of a mariachi band, there are visual evocations of the glitter and glamor of musical theatre; we often find ourselves gazing at the stars, a brief respite from the drama. Dance numbers might begin in the office, continue in a black neutral space as the scenery magically fades away, then return to the real. Songs are delivered in snatches rather than as whole numbers, merging into dialogue and often barely sung at all. The sparkle never outshines the essential seriousness of the subject.

That subject is a tragic one. Even with a new face, body, identity and sense of mission, Emilia Pérez will never leave her other selves behind. The performances encompass that thematic depth. Saldaña brings warmth and a sense of solidity to Rita, guiding us through the plot’s giddying excesses; Karla Sofía Gascón is appropriately larger than life as both the monstrous cartel boss and as Emilia, a born-again woman with the proud demeanor of a ship’s figurehead. Gomez, as her cast-off wife determined to live her best life, brings that unmistakable Disney zing. The greatest plaudits, however, go to Jacques Audiard. It may be too soon to call the Palme d’Or with a week of the Cannes Film Festival left to run, but Emilia Pérez looks very much like a winner.

Title: Emilia Pérez
Festival: Cannes (ComPetition)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Adriana Paz, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Ivanir, Zoe Saldaña, Karla Sofía Gascón, Selena Gomez
Sales agent: The Veterans
Running time: 2 hr 10 min

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