A mother sits alone at night on an empty, whirring carousel. A dancer spins through the air onstage, her limbs convulsing to a hypnotic beat. A helmeted divorcee splits the sky with a stolen blow torch.
That all three of these images depict the same eponymous protagonist of Ema, Pablo Larraín’s latest feature, is of a piece with the Chilean director’s exploration of magnetic, complicated characters that defy tidy categorization (see Jackie and Neruda, his biopics from 2016). Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is an experimental modern dancer in a company led by her husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), a choreographer whose infertility prompts them to adopt Polo (Cristián Suárez), a six year old from Colombia. When the film begins, Ema and Gastón have relinquished custody after the child performs a vicious act that sends Ema’s sister to the hospital. The couple grapples with the guilt and stigma of giving Polo up, and their marriage unravels. “You taught him to light matches,” Gastón accuses her (as he does of any number of affronts, including incest). “You wanted him to burn the whole house down.”
In response to her husband’s silent rage, and her own boundless desperation, Ema sets off on an obsessive mission to restore her erotic, creative, and maternal identity. Enjoining her closest dance friends to join her on her exploits across Valparaiso, Ema assembles a rag-tag girl squad that often resembles a coven. “If you need us to commit a crime, just call us,” says one as they stand in a circle in a vacant lot. “Whatever you need. We’ll be nearby.” And indeed, they are nearby — functioning as a de facto Dionysian tribe, metabolically linked as they pile onto each other in funicular cars, or pleasure each other’s bodies in a series of pansexual montages. In the last half of the film, Ema’s flame throwing is both literal and erotic; she beds at least as many people as she destroys public property.
“I do what I want,” is Ema’s mantra, a succubus in a red camo turtleneck who shuttles her roller bag up and down the city to teach movement classes to elementary kids. At first it’s exciting to see a young mother depicted as such an energizing mess of contradictions — as edgy as she is nurturing, as loyal as she is defiant. But as the film’s lawless heroine, she is eventually pathologized to such extremes that the core of her grief and loss feel less mythic than farcical in proportion. Must she be both a nymphomaniac and a pyromaniac (and possibly a narcissist and chronic liar to boot)? Can’t a woman sleep her way through grief without being a total train wreck? Can’t a sexy dancer with platinum hair suffer the loss of motherhood without randomly torching the whole damn town? “I’m evil,” she tells one of her conquests (a fireman!), who responds, “Oh yes?… So many women say that they are perverse. Evil, the worst.” To this, Ema taunts, “I’m going to horrify you.” Is the film aiming to send up this femme fatalism as mere performance, or to confirm it as true?
That said, Di Girólamo is compulsively watchable, strangely sympathetic no matter how reckless Ema’s behavior. It’s hot watching her seduce her female divorce attorney, Raquel (Paola Giannini), and frankly delightful to watch this middle aged mom get erotically mobbed by Ema’s 20-something dance coven. But Bernal — whose face and body are among the most nimbly joyous of any living actor — is denied the opportunity to depict any real range. A vein pulsing from his forehead, Gastón glowers through virtually every scene. His contempt for Ema in giving Polo back is believable enough, as is hers for his infertility and snobby disdain for the reggaeton she loves to dance on the street. But their union lacks even the physical spark one would expect from two humans brought together by their passion for dance.
This film has been called anarchic, and indeed it would have truly smoldered had it trusted its visual instincts above its far-fetched story. We are initially led to believe that Polo’s fire was set by accident, perhaps out of curiosity, only to learn that he consciously targeted Ema’s sister, pouring alcohol on her face before tossing a match. What social worker would repeatedly dub such sadism “normal,” as does their harried agent? And why, if they so dearly wanted a child, wouldn’t Ema and Gastón simply seek a sperm donor? (It’s legal in Chile, as it is in more progressive Latin American countries.) Are we to assume that it is out of pride that he would rather adopt a traumatized child? And, when it comes to Ema’s fiery antics, are we to assume that Valparaiso has absolutely zero public surveillance?
Larraín’s penchant for highly stylized melodrama might remind one of Pedro Almodóvar, but unlike the Spanish director’s maximalism-meets-sumptuous-camp, this film never gets to enjoy its own absurdity. Ema is relentlessly self-serious, its narrative contrivances an excuse for explosive visuals, visuals that could stand alone sans implausible plot twists. Style over substance isn’t the issue; style is substance in the right hands. But Larraín doesn’t trust his own filmographic brilliance, and lets story take over in the end.
On one level, Ema reads as a testament to a mother’s unconditional love, the lengths she will go to recover her lost child, but it is more coherent as a vibrant tribute to the energy of a city often overlooked. The prismatic ports and vertiginous hills of Valparaíso are, in a way, more dynamic characters than any played by an actor. The city’s breathtaking skyline, rocky beaches, and vistas coalesce with the modern, industrial vibe of its shipyards, bridges, and Bauhaus-inspired architecture — all of which serve as a practice space for Ema and her dance crew. Without Valparaíso’s neon streets or throbbing nightlife, Larraín’s film would feel resolutely dolorous, its energy dulled by the bathos of the third act. Against a city that is already so clearly lit, the blow-torching scenes feel somehow both gratuitous and redundant.
But as a movie that celebrates the ecstasy of dance and reggaeton amid an under-represented international backdrop, it’s worth seeing, and hearing, on the big screen. Don’t invest too much of your mind — or heart — in Ema’s heavy drama; revel in the combustibility of its ocular thrills.
Ema is currently in select theaters.