Zoe Saldaña stars in ‘Emilia Pérez,’ a movie unlike any other

In French the author Jacques Auditoriumnew movie of Emilia Perezpremiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, Zoe Saldaña plays Rita, a dogged Mexico City lawyer who is creepily contacted by the leader of a major drug cartel. This creepy character has been observing Rita’s work from afar and thinks she might be the right woman for an extremely sensitive job: researching the best and most discreet doctors to perform gender confirmation procedure for this murderous crime boss.

It’s a riskier conceit than anything else, but Audiard’s steadfast refusal to treat it as a joke — this is sincere, emotional filmmaking — proves utterly triumphant. The film is engaging even before its major reveal appears; right from the first song, Emilia Perez charm and surprise. Oh, yes: I should have mentioned that Emilia Perez is also a musical with cute and vibrant melodies written by a French pop musician Camille and score of Clement Docul. So this is a musical about a transgender mogul giving up her old life and starting over, and Selena Gomez is also in there. What a strange and rewarding concoction.

Emilia, as she dubs herself, is played by the Spanish soap star Karla Sofia Gascon, all hisses and threats in the pre-transition scenes before her rebirth as a gentle and sophisticated woman of the world. However, not everything is magically changed for the better. Emilia misses her wife, Jessi (played by Gomez), and their two young children. So she enlists the help of the wary Rita again, coming up with a plan to reunite her family in Mexico. Emilia is currently posing as a distant cousin of the crime boss, who is presumed dead. No matter how sweet the film may be, Audiard always creates a string of suspense in the background. After all, Emilia in her previous life was quite a dangerous person and surrounded herself with dangerous people. This can easily lead to terrible mistakes. See Emilia Perez, it’s hard to know which tone to trust; Is this an uplifting story of redemption or of a terrible, inevitable tragedy?

It is both a celebration of the power of positive change and a parable about the far-reaching consequences of violence. On the brighter side of things, Emilia Perez is a heartfelt—albeit in overwrought—description of the good that comes from the transition. Emilia stepping into her fullest self is a victory in itself, but it also opens her eyes to the flaws in her ways and those of the world. Emilia becomes a champion for the missing, working with Rita to locate the remains of those most likely killed by her henchmen. Emilia Perez may be quick to whitewash a brutal murder, but within the film’s crazy and loving context, we believe the arc.

That’s largely because Gascón sells it so convincingly. Her performance has a compelling texture, both hopeful and haunting. She builds an engaging and trusting relationship with Saldaña, who is also wonderful. Rita is one of the very few people who knows who Emilia used to be, which terrifies her. But she is also attracted to this perfectly good person; she and Emilia become friends and allies, perhaps exemplifying some wild cinematic version of restorative justice.


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