Emilia Pérez: A musical film about drug cartels and gender reassignment? So bonkers it works

Selena Gomez in Emilia Pérez
Selena Gomez in Emilia Pérez - Shanna Besson

Cannes needs big flexes from its trusted auteurs, not just films where they play it safe and stay in their lanes. Few flexes come bigger, love it or hate it, than Emilia Pérez.

Whatever lane we’ve tried to stick the French director Jacques Audiard in before now – he of the Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan (2015) and Bafta-winning prison drama A Prophet (2009) – he chicanes here across about five at once, with a reckless disregard for oncoming traffic.

This is a musical with around a dozen choreographed song-and-dance numbers – not a semi-musical like Barbie, but a full-scale one. It’s mostly set in Mexico City yet was mainly shot in Paris. Oh, and it’s all about cartel violence and gender reassignment.

Sicario with songs? Selena Gomez veering from karaoke to kidnapping? Almost any two of its elements feel like an unpromisingly eccentric combo. Audiard’s trick is to make the overblown mélange into something amazingly confident – it’s clever, earnest, ridiculous, knowing, forceful and absolutely bonkers. It’s hard to believe he pulls it off, but he does.

Before we get to the musical number in a clinic with the chorus “Rhinoplasty! Vaginoplasty!”, there’s a first act to explain everything. Zoë Saldana plays Rita, a paralegal full of self-loathing – but with a lot of great dance moves – who’s sick of the corrupt system she’s part of: she helps murderers get acquitted and feels she’s wasting her life.

Emilia Perez
Emilia Perez - Shanna Besson

Then she gets abducted by a cartel boss named Manitas (Karla Sofía Gascón), who wants to pay her $2 million to relocate him and his family well away from the hell he’s helped create. More to the point, he wants to become a woman, having faked his own death, and to pose as a distant cousin: not even his tough cookie of a wife (a spunky Gomez) is in on the plan.

Gascón, a Spanish transgender actress, plays the character with beguiling panache both pre- and post-surgery. An especially brilliant notion is that Manitas, with gold grills, tattoos and an aggressive presence, is a man who got ahead by faking his outsized masculinity. “Born in a pigsty”, as we learn in one ballad, he had to be the biggest bastard in the criminal ecosystem to survive. He wants to live more purely, which he thinks a gender reset is going to make possible.

“Emilia Pérez” steps in, then, with Manitas supposedly dead, and only Rita knows the score. Emilia, though, remains tethered inescapably to her past – by the children who find her smell poignantly familiar, and also a conscience haunted by the many deaths on her hands. She doesn’t want to be “dead-named”, but it would be a form of moral cowardice to deny her previous identity altogether, which complicates the film’s stance – controversially, no doubt – on whether “he” can be fully erased by the “she”.

Gomez gets maybe three-and-a-half songs – the strongest is her last – in a role they might have beefed up more: her fling with a pimp played by Édgar Ramirez is purely functional. Still, it’s not as if Audiard doesn’t have enough to cram in, as the film hurtles towards a gun-toting, explosive finale that will be as polarising as everything else. This wild ride could easily be his threat for a second Palme. We all know that Greta Gerwig, chairing the jury, loves her musicals – but she’s certainly never seen one like this before.

130 min, cert TBC. Screening at Cannes Film Festival; UK release date TBC