Jacques Audiard (Rust & Bone, A Prophet, Dheepan, The Sister Brothers) has always confounded expectations, his films a wide range of tones, genres and subject matters. His latest – a tempestuous, glorious musical crime dramedy is no different and an absolute triumph. 

Emilia Pérez is a moniker assumed by a Mexico City kingpin after the first reel – introduced via Rita (Zoë Saldaña), a defence lawyer tired of the corruption and lack of real justice in the system she works for. As she finishes up getting yet another violent man out of prosecution, she’s made an offer she can’t refuse. Fearsome drugs cartel overlord Manitas wants her help in disappearing. For this service he’ll make her rich and he intrigues her with a twist on the demand. Manitas has always longed to become his true self, a woman, and he wants to protect the two young children he has with his wife, Jessi (Selena Gomez). When Rita takes the job to help Manitas get reassignment surgery and hide his family, her life transforms from one of a powerless, invisible woman to one of agency and might. And Emilia (Karla Sofía Gascón, who also plays Manitas with prosthetics) will also discover her true calling in her new life… 

And did we mention that amongst the gangland violence and body bags there’s singing and dancing? Operatic in every way, Audiard has plastic surgeons trilling about penises vs vaginas while bandaged client spin on hospital beds, Gomez burn up a disco with a banger about self love, Emilia’s unknowing child singing that her ‘auntie’ smells like Papa and – in a show stopping number – Saldaña dancing on fundraiser tables in a red velvet suit, spitting lyrics at corrupt officials. 

On paper it probably shouldn’t work as a concept, but the musical interludes written by Camille bring real pathos and emotional heft to a complex story with moral grey areas. Manitas is a stone cold killer and gangbanger, yet in the hands of Spanish actress Gascón the beast becomes an empathetic beauty, making Rita – and audiences – care despite prior transgressions. And when you’ve got performers like Gomez and Saldaña committing to musical numbers choreographed by Damien Jalet, Emilia Pérez soars. It’s like watching Moulin Rouge! crossed with Narcos. And though this story might begin with the needs of an alpha male, it’s ultimately about the experiences of women; overlooked at work, beaten at home, yearning for lost children, in love, insane with jealousy, forgiving themselves. The standout though is Saldaña, charting the arc of Rita from poor, disenfranchised minion to magnificent matriarch (in all manner of ways), she is the beating heart of the piece and our emotional way into connecting so fully with the characters.e

In the official competition at Cannes, this is a salty/sweet, ultimately uplifting crowd pleaser (Cannes’ audiences gave it a deserved 6-minute ovation) has a good chance of winning gold on the Riviera before being a contender in the race for awards.

Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Pérez starring Zoë Saldaña, Selena Gomez and Karla Sofía Gascón is screening at the 77th Cannes Film Festival. Release date TBC