IFFR Review: Pablo Larraín's Film 'Ema' Starring Mariana Di Girolamo
by Forrest Cardamenis
February 3, 2020
Before the title card in Pablo Larrain's film Ema is a following shot of the platinum-blonde title character walking down the middle of an empty road lit by neon and fire. It is perhaps the only truly familiar authorial element in Larrain's latest feature. Ema marks Larrain's return to his homeland of Chile after a successful Hollywood debut in Jackie, and he also returns, for the first time since Tony Manero, to apolitical subject matter. There are no coups, riots, or assassinations in Ema; nobody even dies. Instead, a dancer couple (Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema and Gael Garcia Bernal as Gastón) spars after Ema returns their son to foster care after he immolates a family member, trying alternately to destroy and repair the atypical family.
The film was co-written by playwright Guillermo Calderón, the scribe behind Neruda and The Club, and like those, it has the hallmarks of a type of theater epitomized by Harold Pinter, in which highly ambiguous character actions frequently baffle but always intrigue, making the pursuit of a coherent interpretation difficult but worthwhile. Larrain, however, is a melodramatist and an optimist at heart. He lives for big, revealing speeches, moments of misrecognized virtue, and the reassertion of clearly defined moral values, and whether dealing with fictional or historical figures, they tend to be powerless and victimized, caught up in situations with almost impossibly high stakes. Much of the intrigue of his work comes from the tension in those competing modes, and Ema is no exception.
Ema is, at least per her partner Gastón, the best dancer in his dance troupe, and perhaps the only one who understands dance and music as more than exhibitionism, but her decision to return their son Paco to foster care sends Gastón into a tailspin, causing him to berate her and the rest of the troupe. Ema copes in her own way: filing for divorce, and attempting to seduce her lawyer, other dancers, and Paco's new, married foster father. Many of these scenes are played on the brink of hysterical realism, as when Ema, through her wit and willingness to dance on a table, convinces her lawyer to let her pay in haircuts & manicures, or when Gastón chews out Ema and two friends for their dancing and taste in music, which he views as antithetical as art in the standard anti-consumerist, anti-exhibitionist manner. In another memorable scene, Ema interviews for a teaching job with a principal who is so impressed she denounces her own position as an authority figure.
Some have argued, and they are not wrong, that none of these people are ever acting like human beings. This is true, but arthouse cinema at its best often rejects mimetic realism, but in recent years that style, the stuff of more commercial entertainment industries, has come close to conquering the arthouse as well. More grounded character studies resembling Ema are a dime a dozen. What makes this one fascinating is how aggressively it seems to fight itself, how hysterical characters act without absurdity ever displacing Larrain's familiar aesthetic. Sometimes, as when colorful, expressionistic lighting threatens to overpower characters, it seems as if Larrain is unwilling to commit himself fully. Other times he is deadly serious, and his talented performers convince you that you should be, too.
The film is scored by Chilean-American Nicolas Jaar, one of electronic and ambient music's contemporary masters, tasked here with making reggaeton music that only barely passes the test, if at all. It's another instance of an accomplished but arguably mishandled component of the film that, by the very nature of its oddness, heightens again the reality on which the film takes place. The result is the creation of a universe in which coincidence after coincidence is suddenly plausible even as it scans as if it exists solely to present another obstacle for its protagonist. The culmination is an ending so bizarre it would play as parody if not for the sincere moralism on display, but that tension again works in favor of the film. The various people responsible for this film are all visibly talented, but arranged in a haphazard manner. Whether that is for better or for worse is, even more than most things in life, strictly a matter of preference.
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