Pablo Larrain’s Ema is a film of vivid images and perplexing deeds, yet none of it is there purely for shock value—instead, Larrain uses those images and deeds to explore human relationships and society in a way that is seldom seen on screen, particularly not in Hollywood films. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but if you are willing to enter the world Larrain creates for you, the experience is profoundly rewarding.
The first image in Ema is a burning traffic light suspended above a darkened street; the camera lingers on this striking image for upwards of a minute before revealing the source of the fire: a tall blond woman with a flamethrower. That would be the title character, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), whose behaviors and motivations often seem as inscrutable as this initial act. She’s not “likable” in any conventional sense (in fact, she often seems determined to make you dislike her), and certainly not interested in fulfilling anyone’s expectations of how a woman or a mother should behave. And yet she is governed by an internal logic that makes absolute sense once you’ve gotten on her wavelength, which is analogous to the way this film works—you have to take it on its own terms or not at all.
Ema, a modern dancer specializing in reggaeton, is married to Gastón (Gael García Bernal), the somewhat older director of the company with which she performs. That their age difference is pointed out by a third party early in this film is another reason you know this isn’t a Hollywood movie, as are the frank conversations about family matters that are usually omitted or elided over in American films.
Gastón is sterile, which Ema implies is his own fault, so the couple chooses to adopt a child. That the adoption did not go well is revealed early on—in fact, it went so badly that they returned the child, Polo (Cristian Felipe Suarez), to the orphanage. That’s about as bad as it gets, and the other characters react with the kind of shock and condemnation that is entirely understandable. Their disgust is exacerbated by Ema’s haughty demeanor and refusal to offer any kind of explanation—although of course people react in different ways to tragedy, Ema isn’t obligated to justify herself to co-workers and the like, and this is one of those times when people should realize that they don’t know the whole story and in any case unsolicited input is not required.
The reason why Ema and Gastón return Polo to the orphanage is not revealed for some time, but an early scene, in which they discover their pet cat in the freezer, gives you a fair idea of what’s coming. The direction to be taken by their relationship is also clear from the film’s opening minutes, but the conventional working out of a plot is not really the point—instead, this film is an exploration of Ema’s character and a deconstruction of conventional attitudes and behaviors. It’s also a cinematic poem, in which the cinematography of cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (which showcases the beauty of Valparaíso, Chile’s second largest city, as well as the creativity of the dance troupe), coupled with a fascinating soundtrack by Nicolas Jaar, help keep you absorbed in this film even when the narrative makes for rough going. | Sarah Boslaugh
Following its theatrical release, Ema will be available on VOD beginning Sept. 14; further information is available from the film’s web site.