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Cannes 2024: Emilia Pérez, Three Kilometers to the End of the World, Caught by the Tides

If someone told you that Cannes was showing an original musical about a ruthless cartel kingpin who wants to transition and secretly hires a top-flight lawyer to set the logistics in motion, which director would you guess was at the helm? Pedro Almodóvar? John Cameron Mitchell?

The actual director of "Emilia Pérez" is Jacques Audiard, who won the Palme d'Or in 2015 for "Dheepan." With a résumé that includes the prison film "A Prophet," the western "The Sisters Brothers," and the 21st-century romantic roundelay "Paris, 13th District," Audiard has done a pretty good job of resisting being confined to a genre or developing an obvious signature. But it's still a shock, as the film starts, when Rita (Zoe Saldaña) begins singing about the murder trial in which she's serving as a defense lawyer. We don't typically expect songs in that context, let alone from Audiard. (The music is by Clément Ducol and the mononymous singer Camille.)

So, on some level, "Emilia Pérez" is worth appreciating as a filmmaker's effort to completely shift gears. Audiard fully commits himself to a widescreen, mainly Spanish-language production that goes for broke: There's a musical number about vaginoplasty and rhinoplasty; soon after, there is a song in which Rita tries to convince a doctor in Tel Aviv (Mark Ivanir) to travel to Mexico to meet her client. The film further follows the friendship that forms between Rita and the former drug kingpin, Emilia Pérez (Karla Sofía Gascón), after they reconnect four years later in London. (Gascón makes the most of the scene in which she reveals her identity to an unrecognizing Rita; she could well be in the conversation for the festival's best-actress prize.) Emilia attempts to repent for past killings and to reunite with her wife (Selena Gomez) and children. Having spent years living in a snow-globe Switzerland, they don't know who Emilia is, either, and it's in these twisty family scenes—with Emilia taking on the role of aunt to her own kids—that the film most resembles Almodóvar.

But again, if this were actually an Almodóvar film, it would seem a lot less unexpected. In Audiard's hands, it looks like a big swing: a movie willing to risk looking ludicrous in pursuit of operatic ambitions. If "Emilia Pérez" is a folly, it is, par for the course for this director, an impersonal one. This becomes most apparent in the second half, once the novelty of the film's style has worn off and Audiard must dutifully attend to the mechanics of the plot.

For a modern opera that successfully went big and weird, one need only look back to Cannes three years ago with "Annette," Leos Carax's collaboration with Sparks. And for a folly—well, we just had one two days ago with "Megalopolis," and the comparison is instructive. For everything about it that might be clunky or inert, "Megalopolis" feels like a movie that poured straight out of Francis Ford Coppola's mind and onto the screen; it teems with his private preoccupations—historical, political, literary, cinematic. "Emilia Pérez" has more polish and pizzazz, but it feels like something that Audiard worked on as a challenge, not an obsession.

Likewise, "Three Kilometers to the End of the World" is a perfectly solid drama with a naggingly machine-tooled quality. Directed by Emanuel Parvu, who has a longer résumé as an actor (2022's "Miracle") than as a director, the film centers on a slowly building crisis that fits in comfortably with the Romanian New Wave films of the past two decades. Adi (Ciprian Chiujdea), a 17-year-old boy, is violently attacked one night. But efforts to arrest the culprits run into a series of investigative and bureaucratic snags. Then, it becomes clear that Adi was beaten because he is gay. This revelation, news to his parents (Bogdan Dumitrache and Laura Vasiliu), suddenly shifts the priorities of the town's homophobic residents. Who cares about holding violent thugs accountable when there is—horror—a gay person who needs to be dealt with?

Compared to the films of Cristian Mungiu ("R.M.N."), Corneliu Porumboiu ("Police, Adjective"), and Cristi Puiu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu"), "Three Kilometers" seems both less rigorous from a formal perspective and insufficiently thorny. I have no doubt that homophobia is a problem in some parts of rural Romania, but there are few real ambiguities for viewers to wrestle with. Nobody watching this movie is rooting for the priest who wants to essentially exorcize Adi and suggests at one point that his treatment methods are as sound as medical science. Clearly, Adi has been wronged and deserves justice. Parvu's film preaches to the choir.

Jia Zhangke's "Caught by the Tides" is easily the most challenging film to play in competition so far, and it's difficult to know what to make of it, certainly on first viewing. Much of it is sampled from footage that Jia shot over the last 20-plus years, beginning in 2001. The setting is often the northern city of Datong, although much of the middle section—aspect ratios and image quality vary with the passage of time—brings back material on the Yangtze River apparently shot for "Still Life" (2006), which showed the consequences of the creation of the Three Gorges Dam.

"Caught by the Tides" teems with callbacks to Jia's earlier work, and even longtime fans may struggle to catch all the references. The film essentially updates the conceit of his breakthrough film, "Platform" (2000), observing cultural changes in China through the eyes of, in this case, one particular character, with an emphasis on songs and dance. The central figure of the film is Qiaoqiao, who is largely silent (and on occasion even Tati-like, in her interactions with a robot); she is played by Jia's longtime lead actress (and wife) Zhao Tao. Jia has blurred the line between fiction and documentary before, and in "Caught by the Tides," as in other long-running film projects like "Boyhood," the physical changes in the character become a form of nonfiction. I may have more to say about "Caught by the Tides" after I catch it again.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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