Cannes 2024 Review

Emilia Pérez is a Weird, Unexpected Triumph

A trans musical crime comedy shouldn’t be as good as this.

Inverse Reviews

Emilia Pérez shouldn’t work. First, there’s its billing as a “musical crime comedy,” a collection of genres that are rarely grouped together, let alone uttered in the same sentence. Then, there’s its premise: a Mexican cartel leader (Karla Sofía Gascón) hires a small-time lawyer (Zoe Saldaña) to assist him in getting a sex reassignment surgery in order to leave his life of crime behind and start anew as the woman he was always destined to be.

It sounds like a recipe for the most ill-advised crime thriller ever (and indeed, is just a few details off from the Michelle Rodriguez thriller that was buried for its tasteless premise a few years ago), but surprisingly, Emilia Pérez is an emotionally fulfilling triumph.

Karla Sofía Gascón is a revelation in the title role.


Written and directed by French director Jacques Audiard (director of such Cannes darlings as the terrific crime thriller A Prophet and the romantic drama Rust and Bone), Emilia Pérez works because it takes its wild premise completely seriously. Right from its electrifying opening musical sequence, in which Saldaña’s mousy Rita Moro Castro laments the state of the corrupt Mexican justice system with a rousing number on the bustling streets of Mexico City, it’s clear there’s nothing quite like Emilia Pérez. The film follows Rita as she’s forcibly recruited by Juan “Small Hands” Del Monte (Gascón under heavy layers of prosthetics) to help him find a doctor for his sex reassignment surgery. Promised a hefty sum, Rita is eventually convinced when she, shockingly, sees that Del Monte is sincere that he has always wanted to be a woman. So Rita helps Juan fake his death, sending his resentful wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) and children to take refuge in Switzerland.

But four years later, Emilia — now a glamorous, enchanting woman of means — reconnects with Rita with a new wish: she wants to see her children again. Reluctantly, Rita is dragged back to Mexico’s crime world, but with a new purpose. Emilia reinvents herself as a philanthropist recovering the bodies of victims of cartel crime for grieving families (ironically, using her old criminal connections). She and Rita begin a nonprofit to find missing people, while Jessi and her children are brought back to Mexico City to live with Emilia, whom they are told is Juan’s long-lost cousin.

As you can probably tell from its winding plot, Emilia Pérez is by no means a conventional crime thriller. But one of the joys of the movie is just how unpredictable it is, following no clear formula or established narrative like ones before it and frequently turning its darkest emotional moments into surprisingly empowering musical sequences. It’s a strange balance between melodramatic and sincere that feels like a close cousin to the works of Pedro Almodóvar, who lends a warm humanism to transgressive topics like gender identity and sex work. Almodovar’s own 2011 thriller The Skin I Live In also presented a provocative narrative centered around a sex change, though Emilia Pérez is not nearly as incendiary as the Almodóvar film. Perhaps by nature of its musical premise, Audiard’s film is a little sentimental and hokey. It approaches each hot-button issue with a kind of bald-faced sincerity that cannot help but feel at least a little endearing. When Rita scopes out potential options for Emilia’s operation, the doctors sing so gleefully about “vaginoplasty!” and “breasts!” that it almost tips the movie over into camp. But then the film turns around and delivers a surprisingly profound musical number performed by the families of these missing people, or skewers the system-wide corruption of the Mexican government in an exhilarating sequence performed by a never-better Saldaña. It helps too that all the songs, composed by French artist Camille, have a raw, urgent energy to them — as if they’re just as unfiltered and angry as the emotions of the people singing them. It’s far from the glossy production of Hollywood musicals, even if Selena Gomez’s numbers are shot like music videos.

Impressively, Selena Gomez’s songs, like all the songs in Emilia Pérez, are all sung in Spanish.


Gomez manages to impress as Emilia’s bitter ex-wife, trapped in her situation and angry at the cards that life has dealt her — except for a steamy romance she strikes up with petty criminal Gustavo (Edgar Ramirez). However, her role is fairly slight and the movie often feels like it capitalizes on her pop-star status a few too many times. Instead, it’s her fellow female leads (all of whom share the Cannes Best Actress award) that really make the Emilia Pérez soar. Saldaña, whose Rita is probably the closest to the film’s protagonist, gives a career-best performance as the formerly beleaguered lawyer who unexpectedly becomes one of Emilia’s closest allies. Saldaña comes to life in the musical sequences, giving the most athletic, energized performance of the film — angry and righteous, but deeply empathetic at the same time. Also a lovely presence is Adriana Paz as Epifania, a young abused woman who strikes up a sweet romance with Emilia.

But the real revelation is Karla Sofia Gascón, who is nothing short of luminous as Emilia. Both Del Monte and Emilia are played with towering presence and incredible emotional depth by Gascón. If her physical transformation into Del Monte at the beginning of the film was impressive, it’s her layered, thoughtful performance as Emilia in the latter half that truly seals her as the MVP of the film. Her Emilia is glamorous and confident, but also uncertain. She’s timid, but also carries with her that powerful rage that made her an infamous cartel leader in a past life. It’s through Gascón’s careful performance as Emilia through which the film’s strange alchemy of melodrama and provocative thrills works, and why Emilia Pérez ends up the triumph it is.

Emilia Pérez seems like one of those Cannes premieres designed to be provocative. But it walks its delicate tonal tightrope with such a disarming ease that one can’t help but be swept away by this musical about former drug kingpins finding themselves.

Emilia Pérez premiered May 18 at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released by Netflix in the U.S. at an unannounced date.

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