There’s a lot to look forward to in what has been branded a Mexican comedy-thriller musical from the Palme d’Or winner that brought us Dheepan, A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and, more recently, the underseen Western delight that marked his move toward Hollywood, The Sisters Brothers. Or so it seemed. 

Writer-director Jacques Audiard is one of the few filmmakers who has been able to, more than once, tell stories from outside their world and capture narrative, character, and culture with a unique foreign perspective that adds meaningful insight without bringing into question the filmmakers’ respect or depiction of the subjects. (Italian director Roberto Minervini is another at Cannes this year, his film The Damned offering a perspective on life during the American Civil War.)

Thus it appeared that this cartel-centric, Mexico-set, largely Latina film––about an unsuspecting lawyer being forced to help a violent cartel boss transition into a woman in order to leave her past behind and finally feel like herself––is actually right up the septuagenarian Frenchman’s alley. Unfortunately, Audiard has met his match. Despite the title and promo image, the story primarily follows lawyer Rita Moro Castro (Zoe Saldana), while Emilia (Karla Sofía Gascón) and Jessi (Selena Gomez) are side characters that eventually get plenty time in the spotlight. Within minutes of opening, Rita is kidnapped by a doctor and the story avalanche begins.

In good-spirited fashion, nothing offends. But nothing lands, either. It simply lacks inspiration, which is strange for an Audiard film, the likes of which are never the same. That’s what made the prospect of Emilia exciting and, doubly, its emptiness so flattening. For as patently fierce as it tries to be, it has no bite, no intrigue, no grip on the viewer. 

All of that taken into account, one has to wonder why and how this audacious, foolhardy film written by three white French people exists in the first place. There’s nothing insincere about it, but it feels distant from its characters and themes in an out-of-touch way––an earnest movie with no heart, which seems an insane thing to say about a film with a zany song about transitioning in which all the -plastys (e.g. rhino-, vagino-, etc.) are shouted by a chorus of hospital staffers. The little worthwhile is salvaged by the fact that every song is sung (or spoken, as much of the “singing” is more like patterned talking) in a romance language like Spanish. There’s a beauty and rhythm to the language that stitches the occasional disparate filmic elements together.

The musical numbers seem to have gotten their own cursed treatment, but the scored Mexican music elements tend to hit––like the ominous autotune a cappella, the smokey classical guitars, and the muted mariachi trumpets ringing out over dark cityscapes. Though the mere fact that it’s in Spanish, or that some instruments occasionally sound good in the background, can’t hold the weight of all that’s missing in plot, mood, theme, tone, and most other cornerstone elements that make even a decent movie.

At its strongest, Emilia Perez is a blend of inspired cinematic technique and stereotypically cool music-video aesthetics. And even at that, it’s a flashy slog at two hours and ten minutes. At its worst, you simply wish the credits were rolling, like when they just sing “Emilia Perez” over and over and over.

On my way out of the screening, I overheard someone refer to Emilia Perez as “Sicario meets Mrs. Doubtfire.” As ridiculous as that sounds, it couldn’t be more accurate––a shame for a movie that leans much more heavily into its dramatic than comedic side, a side I didn’t experience but the movie claims to have. And if all of that comes across as wildly misshapen and poorly conceived, that’s because it is.

Emilia Perez premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: D

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