Whilst The Sopranos spent six seasons asking what might happen if a mob boss went to therapy, Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Perez, in competition at Cannes Film Festival, has a related, but more radical conceit. What if the most macho of mob bosses transitioned to become a woman? 

The film starts, however, as a story about Rita, a criminal lawyer (Zoe Saldaña) in Mexico motivated by her desire for justice against violence. After winning a case, for which her boss is given all the recognition, she receives a call. The monstrous-sounding speaker—who has spotted her brilliance—asks her to meet. Rita is kidnapped and taken to meet Manitas, the infamous leader of a drug cartel. He needs her help in realising his dream to undergo gender reassignment surgery and fake his own death. With the promise of endless money, Rita agrees. Securing a philosophical surgeon who believes that reassignment can never change a soul, she wakes up in a cocoon of bandages, gasping with delight. Emilia Perez is born. 

The film’s bold concept is matched with its creative daring. It is epic and opulent, jet setting around the globe—colourful intertitles name each new location—from the sunny hills of Mexico City to the snowy scapes of Switzerland. Musical segments intersperse the film—from Damien Jalet-choreographed set numbers with huge choruses and hypnotic modern music video intervals to smaller psychological moments where a character expresses themself in song. Whilst a theatrical sincerity abounds, the off-kilter execution keeps an artful edginess. 

One of the first three films on the slate at Saint Productions (the French fashion houses’s new entertainment subsidiary), the brand’s costumes bring a welcome degree of glamour, but—as can sometimes be the way with brand-sponsored projects in which product comes before plot—never distracts from the main action. In the opening scene, a high heel is pictured in a crime scene photo of a dead woman. If this is an advert for YSL, the film seems to joke, then it’s a pretty weird one. 

The main portion of the film is devoted to Emilia Perez’s life as she reunites with her family by pretending to be Manitas’ cousin (another operation organised by Rita). The former mob boss has become a madonna. Played with warmth and dazzle by Karla Sofia Gascon, Emilia opens a human rights NGO with Rita to help families of missing people. She even meets a girlfriend, one who is relieved that her violent, rapist husband has been found dead. The scales of justice have found a very strange balance. 

Yet as Emilia steps into the leading role, her supporting characters have their own psychodramas. Jessi, Emilia’s former wife, may adhere to the mob wife aesthetic, but is wonderfully tormented and abject. The former Disney star’s first musical sequence sees her writhing and humping her bed in a way that is too hysterical to be simply sexual. She rekindles a romance with her former lover (Edgar Ramirez, particularly modelesque in YSL attire) and she falls giddily into a teenage passion. Rita, 40, with a career in the sewers and a love life down the drain, loses herself in the lives of those around her. The film is self-conscious about her lack of depth, though. Even on a date the man only talks about himself. 

Whilst Emilia’s reformed character suggests redemption, the essentializing idea that a transition into femininity leads to virtuousness is problematized by Audiard. Upon learning that Jessi is to marry and take the children with her, Emilia loses it. Jessi retaliates. The final portion of the film descends into chaos and violence, the film tempo reaching a breathless crescendo. Emilia’s shellacked fingers end up severed with a ransom note. Can a mob boss change? Somewhat, perhaps, but not really. And karma has ideas of its own. 

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