Pablo Larrain returns with this tale of a woman who will go to fiery lengths to be reunited with her adoptive son
Dir. Pablo Larraín. Chile. 2019. 102 mins.
Pablo Larraín has been a fairly consistent film-maker in his formal invention and – the English-language Jackie excepted – in his concentration on the recent history of his native Chile. He has also been genuinely unpredictable in the range of his stylistic experiment, from the surreally-edged social drama of Tony Manero and Post Mortem; through the downbeat, introspective The Club; to the pastiched realism of docu-drama No, with its use of archaic video textures. But his audacity has never been as free-wheeling as in Ema, a drama about a young woman who takes the term ‘playing with fire’ to fearless extremes.
For all its celebration of female agency, it’s hard to shake off the impression that Larraín and his two male co-writers are getting a little intoxicated on the thrill of young modern women’s gender fluidity
At once a visually expressionistic hymn to female agency and liberation, a psychological thriller that always stays one step ahead of the viewer and a flamboyant reggaeton dance musical, Ema will strike some as a heady celebration of a movie, while leaving others bemused by stylistics that sometimes overpower narrative and psychological plausibility. Much depends on how you take to the central character and the full-on presence of lead Mariana Di Girolamo. Not a little self-indulgent, Ema is Larraín’s least conventionally successful film, and is less likely to connect with audiences than his earlier work; nevertheless it shows a film-maker pursuing his own path as intrepidly as his heroine pursues hers.
Up-and-coming Chilean actor Di Girolamo plays Ema, a young woman dedicated to dance, who performs in the experimental troupe run by her choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal, reunited with Larrain after No and Neruda). The couple had adopted a young boy, Polo (Cristián Suárez) but, by the start of the film, they have returned the child to care after the boy burned the face of Ema’s sister, causing serious scarring. Now, with her marriage under stress and desperate to be reunited with the boy, Ema hatches a plan to get Polo back. The boy now lives with lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini) and her firefighter husband Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), and Ema’s ploy involves seducing each of the two separately.
Her methods, observed by Larraín with sometimes torridly rapt fascination, include inviting Raquel to a steamy dance night and all-female orgy with her girl gang of dancers. She also catches Anibal’s attention by arming herself with a flamethrower and setting a car on fire. This might seem an extreme tactic, but then Ema has a penchant for bursts of therapeutic pyromania – not the most environmentally friendly hobby, but it does makes for considerable visual dazzle.
Meanwhile, Ema devotes herself to dance – both Gastón’s arty variety and the kinetic reggaeton street style – with muscular ferocity. She also vents excess energy in the sack with multiple partners – as in one montage, bordering on the comic, of her getting it on in turn with Raquel, Anibal and assorted female buddies. In another montage, Larrain goes the full music video mile, with Ema and crew going through their paces around the city of Santiago; on docksides and rooftops, in warehouses, even on public transport. More rarefied is the opening glimpse of Gastón’s work, featuring video projections of a blazing solar surface, establishing a metaphor for Ema’s irreducible incandescence that at times feels repetitive and literal. Throughout, electronica artist Nicolas Jaar, who previously scored Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, contributes a soundtrack that runs from muscular dance styles, accompanying the work of choreographer José Vidal, to eerie, richly coloured atmospherics.
In a film that is not predominantly verbal, there are nevertheless some fine script flourishes; notably in a terrific scene, as Gastón fulminates against reggaeton as a dance and music style, and a priceless moment in which a school principal confesses to Ema that she has always hated being an authority figure.
Larraín’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong matches Ema’s own mercurial changeability – one moment catching the chemically-tinged fluorescence of city neon or heightening the blazing hues of the dance show, the next immersing the screen in bled-out tones, echoing the depressive register of Post Mortem.
For all its celebration of female agency, however, it’s hard to shake off the impression that Larraín and his two male co-writers are getting a little intoxicated on the thrill of young modern women’s gender fluidity. Whether this theme convinces the viewer depends on their belief in the indomitable will and incandescent sexuality of Di Girolamo’s Ema, whose ploy is based on the conviction that no-one, male or female, will resist her erotic allure or her con-artist charm. It’s moot whether the audience will yield so easily: while she’s a formidable presence with her intense eyes, androgynous cool and slicked-back helmet of platinum hair, Di Girolamo can also feel hard and distant, her warmth only fully emerging when Ema plays a faux-vulnerable gamine role.
Other cast members perform full-bloodedly and with with, notably Giannini, as a woman amazed to be venturing into sexual terra incognita. And García Bernal gives one of his oddest performances yet, often looking dumbfounded, petulant and child-like – although that’s perhaps the effect of a brutal hairstyle and a very unflattering line in dungarees.
Production company: Fabula
International sales: The Match Factory, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Juan De Dios Larraín
Screenplay: Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Moreno
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong
Editor: Sebastián Sepúlveda
Production design: Estefanía Larraín
Music: Nicolas Jaar
Main cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera, Cristián Suárez