She is young, thin, dark-haired, full of suppressed anger. A gifted lawyer, exploited and poorly paid, she prepares in the shadows the files which allow the firm for which she works to ensure the triumph of its clients. The cases are similar, local justice comes to the aid of corrupt men. One of them is accused of having killed his wife; the theory of suicide will be accepted. Rita is furious. His cell phone rings. At the end of the line, a veiled, authoritarian voice offers him a meeting. She senses the danger, but goes there. In front of her, one of the most formidable drug traffickers in the country, Manitas, offers her a considerable sum of money in exchange for an incredible service: helping her become what he always wanted to be: a woman. . The lawyer without hesitation accepts this opportunity to escape the poverty trap.

The scenario is crazy. What made Jacques Audiard, Grand Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival for Un Prophète, Palme d’Or for Dheepan, to embark on such an adventure? Set the action in an eminently macho country, Mexico, and make it a musical, sung in Spanish, to tell the story of a bloodthirsty cartel leader obsessed with the idea of ​​changing sex to find his true nature, you have to have a temperament. We risk being confronted with accusations of all kinds; and above all, to ridicule.

Zoe Saldana, too, is not afraid: “Emilia Pérez,” says the actress who plays Rita and who inherited an iron discipline from her dance training, “is a film about people who, imprisoned in impossible situations, devise impossible solutions to come out of them.” The young woman sets off in search of the surgeon capable of discreetly carrying out the operation while organizing the exfiltration to Switzerland of the trafficker’s wife, who knows nothing about his project, and of his two children. Manitas pretends to be dead and becomes Emilia Perez.

Four years later, in London, Rita, who has become a brilliant international lawyer, meets for the first time the client whose transition she organized. The face-to-face encounter, impossible to detect, is striking. With Emilia, the Spanish Karla Sofía Gascón plays the role of her life. The actress, who also plays Manitas, was also a man – Carlos – whose transformation dates back to 2018. The tension is exacerbated. Intelligently designed, the sung and danced pieces, which sometimes begin as simple whispers, bring out the interiority of the characters, their feelings, while prolonging the action. Words, amplified by choirs, and choreography express with dark ardor what the images suggest: Mexican reality. “What are we talking about today? Of violence / Of love / Of death / Of a country that suffers”. The singer Camille and her companion, Clément Ducol, composed the melodies, adapted the texts in a powerful, rough, expressive language.

Emilia Perez has not just changed her sex, but her nature. In the markets, women distribute leaflets to try to find their missing sons. She decides to help the widows and orphans that the cartels have left behind. La Lucetita, his association, is the ray of light that transfigures his life and that of Rita who returns to his side. Yet the shadow of Manitas still lurks. To see her children again, she repatriates her family from Switzerland. This time, it is with the woman who was his wife that the heroine will find herself confronted: “I met Selena Gomez one morning in New York. I knew very little about her. In ten minutes, I knew it would be her. Audiard was not mistaken. The actress, of Mexican origin, who was also a dancer, imposes her underground strength on Jessica. How could the latter imagine that the one who introduces herself as “Aunt Emi” was her husband?

Contrary impulses agitate Emilia. Perhaps it takes the experience of Karla Sofia Gascon to understand these heartbreaks, this suffering. It passes over his face and in front of Audiard’s camera. The director captures his inner struggles, never giving in to sentimentality, sentimentalism, or simplistic exposition. The confrontation between the two women is inevitable. Men are merciless; women too. To the tune of Les Passantes, by Georges Brassens, in a revisited Spanish version, a final choral song concludes with melancholy this burning epic towards redemption which we can predict will shake things up.