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Emilia Perez

Fiery trans gangster musical is fuelled by explosive Mexican soap opera devices; the outcome is guaranteed to blow you away - winner of the Jury and Best Actress prizes the 77th Cannes International Film Festival


Manitas del Monte (Karla Sofía Gascón) is a ruthless Mexican drug lord in control of the entire synthetic drug trade of his region. He casually disposes of his enemies without wincing. He is happily married to the beautiful Jessi (Selena Gomez), with whom he has two young children. But life isn’t entirely fulfilling because he harbours a secret: he dreams of becoming a woman. He dares not share this intimate desire with anyone, particularly his family. So he kidnaps lawyer Rita (Zoe Saldaña) and persuades the disillusioned professional to arrange a sex change surgery for him abroad, and to stage his death to his family and enemies. Rita is very efficient: his “murder” is broadcast on national television.

Four years pass and Manitas returns as Emilia, once again grudgingly aided by Rita. Emilia approaches her former wife and children claiming to be a long-lost cousin of Manitas. The transformation is so extreme that not a single person realises it. Not even his wife as she touches Emilia’s face. Even audiences are briefly tricked. It takes a firm gaze into Emilia’s eyes before we realise that Emilia and Manitas are indeed the same person. One of his children notes that Emilia smells like her father, but that’s about it. Emilia can feign her auntie role undisturbed. But she wants more: she wishes to reclaim their parenthood.

Upon transitioning, Emilia left behind her biological gender, old identity, her criminal career and also her rotten gangster values. She establishes an NGO is order to help the families of missing people located their loved ones, dead or alive. We are told that there are in excess of 100,000 such people in Mexico. The fact that Manitas was directly responsible for the deaths of many of these people helps Emilia to locate their bodies. She genuinely regrets her old life, and wants to make up for the horrific mistakes of the past, plus she possesses the knowledge of where many bodies and mass graves are located. The binarism is clearcut: men are manipulative and unscrupulous beasts with little regard for life, while women are compassionate creatures devoted to helping others. Emilia’s transitioning was physical, spiritual and moral. The only thing that hasn’t changed is their sexuality: both Manitas and Emilia are attracted to women (thereby bursting the misconception that trans women are “faggots”)..

The whole endeavour feels very Mexican. The dramatic twists and turns seem like they were taken straight out of a Mexican soap opera. This is seriously hot, shamelessly melodramatic stuff. So melodramatic it makes Pedro Almodovar look like a forensic pathologist. It may come as a surprise that the director is a Frenchman, the three writers are French, and most of the leads are foreigners (Gascón is Spanish, while Saldaña and Gomez are both American). Jacques Audiard is a 72-year-old filmmaker with a Palme d’Or under his belt (for Dheepan in 2015, also a very un-French film, partly set in Sri Lanka), and he is not LGBT+.

Roughly a third of the film consists of brief music and dance acts a la Broadway, as characters break into singing often mid-dialogue. The songs are exquisite and bizarre: how else could you fit the words “vaginoplastly”, “mammoplasty”, “rhinoplasty” and even “chrondrolaryngoplasty” (the shaving of Adam’s apple) into convincing music lyrics? This is the Latin opera of the absurd. Carmen on hormone therapy. It is delicious to watch such unabashed farcicality.

Gascón delivers a devastatingly honest performance. The actress is a trans woman from Spain, and Emilia’s predicament is a familiar one to her. She presumably suspended her hormones in order to play the male version of herself, with a much deeper voice and a face covered in stubble. Manitas indeed looks and acts like a furious drug lord with a hint of sadness in his eyes. And Emilia is a woman very comfortable in her own skin. This is the first time I remember seeing an actress de-transition in order to play a role. Indeed impressive and commendable on many levels.

The only problem is that Emilia has retained a vestigial trace of toxic masculinity, and that eventually comes back to haunt her. Stay put for 130 minutes, and buckle your seatbelts for a bombastic ending.

Emilia Perez just premiered in the Official Competition of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 19-05-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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