28 may 2024

Cannes 2024: can Jacques Audiard’s new film win the Palme d’Or?

Recipient of an award for Dheepan in 2015, French director Jacques Audiard is back with a queer musical, unveiled at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Here is our review of this cinematic UFO starring Zoe Saldana, which could be a serious contender for the Palme d’Or.

If there is one thing Jacques Audiard can’t be blamed for, it is boring us. While the festival can often dwell on the world’s atrocities with a fair, yet serious tone, Emilia Perez has brought color, sound, and a sometimes epic breath of fresh air. His tenth film is a new kind of musical, which stages the story of the transition of a Mexican drug lord’s transformation into a trans woman activist advocating for missing persons (Karla Sofia Gascon), under the gaze of his former wife (Selena Gomez) and a young lawyer (Zoe Saldana). The pitch is so far-fetched, so far from any realistic aim at first sight, that we have to accept it as it is. Good news, it is the topic of the film presented at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.


Emilia Perez, Jacques Audiard’s new film starring Zoe Saldana, Karla Sofia Gascon and Selena Gomez, unveiled at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival


In a career spanning three decades, Jacques Audiard, 72, has always tackled the question of masculinity from a critical angle. His first feature film was See How They Fall in 1994 and one of his latest ones, The Sisters Brothers, hedged in a toxic patriarchal figure to the point of suffocation. Here, he dives back into that bath, but with a plot twist. The first half of the film follows the protagonist on her path to a gender-affirming surgery that takes her to Israel. Manitas, a cartel leader, is now Emilia Perez and returns home incognito, after feeling truly herself at last. But this is no realistic drama. Echoing the journey of its heroine, the film itself explores the notion of genre, mixing singing and dancing sequences during which the characters express their feelings and ideas in motion – “Changing the body changes society”, the brilliant Zoé Saldana sings. We’re simultaneously sent to Hollywood in the 1950s with the musical aspect, to an explosive cartel thriller, and to today’s world with the issue of identities.


Paradoxically, the film has its downsides, which can also make it more appealing. Jacques Audiard charms us, but once the pure charm settles, the director also proves to be very voluntarist and less light-hearted at times. His desire to stamp a queer identity on the protagonist and on the film sometimes seems to give him a free pass to modernity. We don’t question his sincerity, but perhaps his relevance in dealing with a topic that he looks at with the curiosity of those who are not directly concerned by the issue. We’re not asking a feature or a filmmaker for a certificate of commitment or moral standing, but on second thought, something doesn’t sound completely in sync with this general idea of coming out of violence through coming out of the masculine. The final part of Emilia Perez, which we won’t reveal here, suggests that the notion of masculinity is still more important to Audiard than that of trans-identity. That is his absolute right, but his artistic stroke is not crystal clear in the film, since it chooses a transition as its starting point.


Can Emilia Perez win the Palme d’Or?


Imperfect as it may be, Emilia Perez remains a pleasant film to watch, which doesn’t shy away from taking formal and rhythmic risks. We would be surprised if it didn’t make the shortlist of the jury presided over by Greta Gerwig on Saturday evening. If the Palme d’Or should elude him – we still have our favorite, Bird by Andrea Arnold – the film deserves at least an award for the staging, not to mention the incredible trio of actresses who gave life to the project. Will Karla Sofia Gascon, Zoe Saldana and Selena Gomez stand together on the stage of the Grand Théâtre Lumière? It would be well-earned, as they give the film an immediate human dimension and considerable vital energy. All three of them are creating images that we would like to see more on screen.


Emilia Perez (2024) by Jacques Audiard, starring Selena Gomez and Zoe Saldana, coming out on August 28th, 2024.


Traduction Emma Naroumbo Armaing