Cannes 2024 (4)

Emilia Pérez (Jacques Audiard)

Emilia Pérez (Jacques Audiard; © Shanna Besson)

Perhaps the cinema is the ideal place to present questions of fluid identity. In current debates, linguistic sensitivity for particular identities is being called for in the name of 'gender-appropriate language'. On the other hand, gender-specific boundaries are being abolished in 'liquid modernity' (Zygmunt Bauman). All of this is reflected in cinema, exemplified by three French films in competition at Cannes.

Jacques Audiard is one of the most accomplished directors in French cinema. He is not afraid to take risks; each of his films is a surprise. With "Dheepan", the story of a Tamil refugee in the banlieue of Paris, he won the Palme d'Or in 2015.

He also deserved it for "Rust and Bone" (2012), which portrayed the precarious side of life on the Côte d'Azur.

On paper his new oeuvre "Emilia Pérez" sounds rather absurd. A Mexican drug lord wants a sex change and seeks out the lawyer Rita (Zoe Saldana) to prepare everything for him. The whole thing is staged with visual finesse as a musical. What sounds crazy works perfectly on the big screen. "Emilia Pérez" is a rousing thriller which was filmed in Mexico and looks absolutely authentic. The singing and dancing sequences fit seamlessly into the dramatic story. Before cartel boss Manitas del Monte stages his own death, he takes his wife and two children to safety in Switzerland. Years later, he reappears as Emilia Pérez, the dead man's sister.

The alleged 'aunt' lovingly looks after the children, while the somewhat naïve mum Jessi (Selena Gomez) spends the nights with her new lover (Edgar Ramirez). A relationship that does not bode well.

How much remains of Manitas del Monte in his female incarnation as Emilia Pérez? That is the central question, which the film answers in a surprising way. Beforehand, Emilia sets up a foundation to search for the victims of drug-related violence. Karla Sofía Gascón is stunning in the double role of Manitas del Monte and Emilia Pérez. Zoe Saldana as Rita is also one to watch breathlessly as she wanders along her winding path.

Among French critics, "Emilia Pérez" was widely regarded as the favourite for the Palme d'Or. It would be an appropriate prize for an outstanding film.

Coralie Fargeat is a generation younger than Jacques Audiard. Seven years ago, she caused a sensation with her thriller "Revenge", in which a woman takes revenge on her rapists. Now she has stirred up the Cannes competition with "The Substance", a body horror story in the tradition of David Cronenberg. Demi Moore plays a fitness trainer with the telling name Elizabeth Sparkle, who presents a successful aerobics show on television. But, my God, she's already over 50! Far too old for the channel. Her boss, Dennis Quaid as a caricature of a ratings maniac, throws her out with a nice parting gift. Elizabeth refuses to accept the humiliation and embarks on a mysterious makeover. Given the shabby location in a backyard, one suspects that danger lurks here. With the help of a brutally painful injection, her rejuvenated alter ego emerges from the woman's body. The seductive beauty calls herself Sue (Margaret Qualley) and, after a successful casting, takes over Elizabeth's TV show, which now runs under the title "Pump it up!".

The only handicap: the two women have to drain each other's bodily fluids in order to exist. That can't go well in the long run. But the way Coralie Fargeat stages the developing body horror can knock even hardened film critics out of their seats. The director skilfully utilises the female charms of her protagonists to lure the audience in and then shock them for good. "The Substance" is a film that must be seen in the cinema, it can hardly be sufficiently described.

Demi Moore, who has been defined by her body throughout her career, delivers an unpretentious performance of the highest calibre. Margaret Qualley unabashedly plays up the physical superiority and arrogance of youth.

A third French film, "Marcello Mio", is also focused on an existential transformation. Christoph Honoré, a highly productive author and director, is no stranger to Cannes and has been invited to the competition for the second time. In "Marcello Mio", Chiara Mastroanni looks in the mirror one morning and sees the face of her father. Wearing a wig, black glasses, a hat and a suit, she transforms herself into Marcello from Fellini's 1963 classic "Otto e mezzo" (Eight and a Half), which was also about an artist's identity crisis. Chiara's mother (Catherine Deneuve) is shocked by her daughter's new outfit, as is Chiara's ex-lover (Melvil Popaud), while her former partner (Benjamin Biolay) is more relaxed about it. Only her casting partner (Fabrice Lucchini) is completely thrilled with the new Chiara, who insists on being called Marcello.

In the Italian seaside resort of Fermia, where Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroanni have once spent time with each other, the protagonists come together in a grand finale. They all know each other and make up.

"Marcello Mio" is an easy-going family film for insiders and connoisseurs of the Parisian film scene. Nothing to think about for very long, but amusing to watch. No cinematic heavyweight like the films by Audiard and Fargeat, but an ironic play on gender and generational change.

Perhaps French cinema has a special sensitivity to questions of existential identity and the desire to cross boundaries. Unlike in mainstream Hollywood, where 'full frontal nudity' is still frowned upon and violence on screen is more tolerated than sex.