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‘Ema’ Review: An intoxicating film bolstered by strong performances

Self-liberation or existential disorder?

Chilean Pablo Larraín may be one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. His first English-language film, Jackie (2016), was met with critical acclaim and earned its lead, Natalie Portman, an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. What is special about Jackie is that is not a traditional Oscar bait biopic. Rather, by focusing on the days leading up to the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) through the eyes of his widow, Jackie Kennedy (Portman), the film ends up being an intimate exploration of a woman’s grief, walking in the middle of public controversy.

That may be the reason why there is so much anticipation with his new film, Spencer, which will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival next September, already generating award buzz, especially for its protagonist, Kristen Stewart, who plays the iconic Diana, Princess of Wales. 

In this way, Larraín goes from the drama of the White House to that of the English Royal Family. But in between those two films is Ema, which had its world premiere in Venice in 2019, and is finally hitting US theaters under the Music Box label. It is certainly a totally different thing from Jackie and Spencer, which reflects Larraín’s versatility. 

The film written by Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno, tells the story of Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gastón (Gael García Bernal), a couple going through a crisis after their adopted son, Polo (Cristián Suárez), an apparently pyromaniac Colombian boy, burned the face of his aunt, Ema’s sister. This incident (which is never explained in detail), led Ema and Gastón to return the child to the orphanage. A decision for which both face public trial while recriminating each other for what happened.

Whose fault is this? Are Ema and Gastón bad people? Are they not ready to be parents? Who is Pol? The truth is that the boy is a mystery for most of the film and only appears towards the end, but his perspective is never important. The drama centers on Ema and Gastón. The conversations between them are rare. They use all kinds of grotesque, nonsense phrases to insult and blame each other.

Gastón accuses Ema of having taught Polo to burn things. In fact, throughout the film, Ema exhibits alarming pyromaniac behavior, setting fire to a traffic light (the scene that opens the film) or a car. Gastón also says that Ema was flirting with the boy. “My son can suck my whole body if he wants,” says Ema. For her part, Ema tells Gastón about his infertility problem. “You are a human condom. You are never going to give me a child,” she tells him.

We never know if Ema and Gastón are telling the truth. Sometimes it seems that they do not speak seriously. The only thing that is clear is that they have a toxic relationship. Him, an eccentric choreographer who hates reggaeton. Her, a dance instructor who loves reggaeton. Even on a professional level they cannot agree. The dance company Ema works for under Gastón’s direction begins to split when the members begin to side with her or with him in a battle of the sexes. 

‘Ema’ Review: An intoxicating film bolstered by strong performances

But is anyone really interested in the child? Or are they just selfish adults unable to understand the seriousness of the situation? Do Ema and Gastón really want to be parents, or do they just want to play dolls? They even consider the possibility of adopting another child. “Fix your rotten heads before you go grabbing children,” says Marcela (Catalina Saavedra), the same external evaluator who facilitated Polo’s adoption process. In fact, although at times they are pathetically childish, they mental health is alarming. In the best case, Ema could be seen as a not-so-serious depiction of how alienated adults can be from children’s reality.

The film then goes on to focus more on Ema. Now unemployed and in process of divorce, she starts a dangerous game to get closer to Polo through his new adoptive family. However, her maternal interest is never convincing. Rather, Ema exhibits sociopathic behavior. She manipulates people and crosses all lines of respect for the happiness and well-being of others. 

Yet, Ema’s defiant attitude is interesting. At times it reminds us of Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) from 2020’s Pieces of a Woman, who refused to mourn the accidental death of her newborn child in the way that society dictates that we must suffer the loss of a loved one. To some extent, Ema, like Pieces of a Woman, can be read as a defense to private life. However, this case involves other parties, such as the school community and the adoption system itself. But Larraín is clearly not interested in any of this.

‘Ema’ Review: An intoxicating film bolstered by strong performances

Ema returns to the streets to dance at the rhythm of the music that Gastón hates. Reggaeton seems to be the way in which she and her friends access freedom and pleasure. However, this whole conversation turns out to be frivolous. Words like freedom, pleasure, rebellion, and passion are used so repeatedly, but without real awareness of what they imply, they lose their meaning. In that sense, it is worth asking if we are facing a journey of self-liberation or a tremendous existential disorder.

Visually, Ema is a luminous film. Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography manages to metaphorically burns the screen. There is an interesting game of lights, colors and spaces that interact with the characters. The choreographies and the daring use of reggaeton as background to the story deserve special consideration. But the visual style ends up detracting from the storytelling’s effect.

It cannot be denied that Larraín made a challenging film with an incendiary central character. Ema sometimes works by challenging viewers’ moral codes and ability to react, but unfortunately the characters and themes lack a serious and mature approach.

The performances deserve all praise. Di Girolamo delivers a fierce and magnetic performance as Ema. Bravely takes on the challenge of playing a woman with whom it can be so difficult to empathize and who provokes us with her cynical smile. She grows bolder in every scene through her body language and the way she delivers each of her lines. García Bernal, who had already collaborated with Larraín on 2016’s Neruda , is equally exceptional.

Larraín has an artistic vision worthy of recognition, although its execution is not always successful. He may be a master of originality. In Ema, however, he proves not always to be a master of human emotion. The film ends up being a frivolous exercise with an impressively intoxicating effect.

Ema comes to select theaters August 13

‘Ema’ Review: An intoxicating film bolstered by strong performances
Inconsistent in its procedures and unbalanced between its parts, Ema is an intoxicating and visually stylish film catapulted by strong performances. 
Reader Rating2 Votes
Exceptional performances by Di Girolamo and García Bernal
Interesting central character
Hypnotic visual style
More style than substance
Frivolous treatment of emotional and ethical conflicts

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