Pablo Larrain is one of the more interesting directors working in world cinema today with the likes of El Club and Neruda aiding his reputation and contributing to a hot streak of modern Chilean cinema. Here, his talent continues to shine with Ema, his third collaboration with Gael Garcia Bernal that is mainly guided by a solid lead performance from his leading lady, Mariana Di Girolamo.
Bernal and Girolamo portray Gaston and the eponymous Ema, a choreographer and reggaetón dancer whose marriage is driven to breaking point as a result of a life-altering decision to adopt a little boy from Colombia. We learn offscreen that he is already been handed back to the authorities due to his behavioural problems, particularly after an incident which resulted in the burning of Ema’s sister face, not the only incident he was involved in.
Between working on a dance project made fraught by the publicly tense relationship between the couple, Ema sets out an unorthodox plan to bring the boy back into their lives. As part of this, this includes arson of public property showing off the pyromania that arguably got her in this position coupled with a relentless display of sexual behaviour with men and women who appear unable to resist her, notably a couple whom she has a specific connection to.
Larrain presents the film with a style that takes some getting used to with the film occasionally looking more like a music video detailing various dancers, mainly Girolama who with her moves and appearance bears a resemblance to Dua Lipa. But once the film reverts back to storytelling, the focus of what’s going on in the lives of these characters is resumed quick enough that its fluidity is hardly dented.
There is an edginess at times with the scenario feeling like inspiration has been taken from Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin; a family tested and torn apart as a result of the boy’s concerning behaviour. Though not related to him via blood, something close to hereditary is apparent with the implication that Ema’s pyromania may have led to the boy developing the same obsession. He is believed to have played innocently with matches whereas from the opening shot alone her enjoyment of burning items such as traffic lights and ATMs are clearly detailed, with her ‘hobby’ playing a part in the plot.
The bond complex of mother and son and the extinguishing of the bond is expressed where Gaston states that being betrayed by a mother is harder for the boy, although he believes both were to blame. The subsequent discussion between the two is just one of a set of tension-fuelled ones between the couple ending in Ema brutally referring to Gaston as an infertile pig, suggesting the failure to provide a child was the root cause for what led up to all this.
The film is largely about atonement and the desire to rectify the past by going to the lengths she does to get him back in her life demonstrates the strength the film has with its detailing of a mother’s duty. As she makes clear to Gaston after an excoriation from a frustrated social worker, she does what she wants and is in control despite what he may think.
Part of the success is down to how Larrain depicts tension between the two in detailing how their actions seem to follow them wherever they go, notably in their professional lives during a sequence where the troupe struggle to function thanks to snide comments and sides being picked over Gaston’s desire to remove Ema from it.
The same applies to her relationship with her sister when during a temperamental wig fitting she questions why her sister let the boy go even after what happened. She blames the fire and subsequent disfigurement of her sister on the innocence of him playing with matches but as an earlier disturbing shot in a freezer exposes, there is more to it than that, yet she persists with the plan of reunion.
Under Larrain’s direction, Girolama combines coldness, remorse and sexiness with a boundless energy reflective of her talents as both a dancer and actress. Sex is a weapon to her but as with John Wayne in The Searchers, she has to get her loved one back at whatever the price.
It may not be better than El Club or Neruda but on its own terms, its another victorious effort for its director who may have just given its lead actress a deserved knock at the door from Hollywood.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***