Plot be damned, this wacky, fantastical tale carries you along in a multi-coloured street dance, transfixed by the awful beauty that is Ema.
Pablo Larraín is not one to play it safe. His 2015 film The Club was one of the first MIFF films I reviewed and I struggled to understand its bleak and grubby message. You couldn’t get a more different film with Ema, a brightly-coloured fever dream (with a touch of Gaspar Noé style) that celebrates the Valparaíso area of Chile as well as the ferociousness of women.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a young dancer, married to an ageing choreographer, Gastón (Gael García Bernal). Their relationship is toxic, punctuated by his verbal abuse of her about her failings as a woman and mother. Their arguments circle around, always coming back to the adopted son, Polo (Cristián Suárez), who they relinquished as they couldn’t cope with his behaviour. Maybe. It’s possible that Ema had a few difficult days and Gastón convinced her she couldn’t be a mother.
Ema’s guilt, or maybe her love for Polo, drives her away from Gastón, into the arms of many others, back to her husband and on to a school where she hopes to find her son. Although you’ll work hard to keep up with the plot, it doesn’t really matter. In a Q&A after the film, Larraín spoke of the film as being an experiment in acting and writing the story in the moment, without knowing where it was going. You get this sense from the freewheeling nature of the story and characters and, although it feels meticulously crafted, the narrative often feels obtuse and disappointingly shallow.
The highlight is Di Girolamo as the very complicated Ema. You can’t take your eyes off her, whether she is dancing Reggaeton in the streets, setting fire to the city or seducing another friend. She is an uncomfortable heroine as we can’t help but connect with her, despite her dubious choices. It is refreshing to see a female character represented as being sexually powerful and in control of her journey. There is much consternation, from Gastón and film-goers, as to her relationship with Polo and whether she is truly nurturing. I kind of like that she may not be defined by that trait. Perhaps she is easier to understand if you see her as something of a metaphor.
There is a lot of discussion on the socials about the ending and what it means. Is the film a celebration of polyamory (not really a spoiler), is Ema a narcissist who manipulates people to get her way or is she, as Larraín suggests, Mother Nature, who brings together but also destroys? I suspect you might take from this what you choose and the explanation is not definitive. The lack of clear back story for any character, the muddiness of the plot and the lack of explanation for the end keep this from being truly satisfying but I can’t help being grateful there are directors out there who make films like this.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.