‘Ema’ review: Pablo Larraín’s dance film is one of the craziest of 2019
Mariana Di Girolamo gives an incredible breakout performance in a wacky film about a dancer trying to get the son she gave back.
Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Music Box Films is releasing the film in select theaters on Friday, August 12.
An anarchic, liberated and contagious character study which gives the impression of having been born out of a triptych between “Amélie”, “Oldboy” and Gaspar Noé before becoming a force of nature in its own right, “Ema” by Pablo Larraín doesn’t always dance to a clear or recognizable beat, but anyone willing to get on her wavelength will be awarded one of the most dynamic and electrifying films of the year. Which isn’t to say the movie – Larraín’s first since dubbing “Neruda” and “Jackie” in 2016 – doesn’t grab you from the start, just keep you on your toes a bit. whereas before you can understand the steps, and it never allows you to take the lead.
Or maybe the film’s initial veil of impenetrability would be more accurately compared to the rising smoke that obscures a burning car wreck. At least the identity of the igniter is never in doubt. Her name is Ema, she’s a reggaeton dancer in her late twenties, and she was first introduced walking the streets of Valparaiso before dawn with a flamethrower strapped to her back. You are immediately drawn to her, and not just because gasoline is flowing down her back. It’s the reverse tidal wave of bleached blonde hair; the leopard-print belly shirt; the falcon hunger (for who knows what) which makes all those it looks like prey. It’s like everyone else on Earth is asleep and she’s out there making her own trail.
But Ema, played by Mariana Di Girolamo in the kind of unforgettable groundbreaking performance that could forge her into that role forever, isn’t as free as she looks. Details are blurry. Something about a son who is no longer in his care. A social worker talks to Ema in a way that she finds… unusually passionate. “He must have been adopted by another mother who is better than you!” She cries. Larráin repeatedly and frustratingly interrupts our first prolonged glimpse of Ema in her element – she moves with the rest of her dance troupe against the backdrop of a solar flare as Nicolas Jaar’s warm ambient score pulsates. on the soundtrack – with combat exposure cuts she had with her choreographer husband, Gastón (a tall and petulant Gael García Bernal). The sequence refuses any kind of rhythm; it is as if we are in Ema’s head and subjected to all the thoughts that bring her out of the present moment.
And hot slim the things Ema and Gastón say to each other when they argue, each of them hurling the most incredibly hurtful slurs straight into Sergio Armstrong’s camera lens. He’s sterile, she’s a monster, and neither of them could stand the 7-year-old child they adopted together and just gave back. But if little Polo (Cristián Suárez) was such a terror, he locked their friend’s cat in the freezer! – so why are they so divided about the decision? Maybe it’s the guilt of a foster system that’s prejudiced against Colombian and Venezuelan children, or maybe Ema just has a primary need to mother something. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be a long way to go. “You have to do what a lizard does when its tail is cut,” someone suggests. But they can’t grow a new child. This is the problem. And besides, Gastón notes, lizards don’t just sprout a new appendix. First, “they’re all confused and screwed up.”
Larraín ends up plotting a clear plot (ish), but most of “Ema” is about someone – someone who has lost a precious part of themselves, and is trying to find it by following their own strength. unquenchable life – getting all bewildered and fucked up-up. It’s not as depressing as it sounds. In fact, it’s not depressing at all. This is not a sad-faced social drama about an unprepared mother who throws herself at the mercy of the courts and promises to reform her bad manners, it is a wild and delirious riot of sex and rage; it is the spray-painted portrait of a torrential young woman who refuses to be diluted.
Ema, who barely goes anywhere without her loving, rocking fraternity, doesn’t fuck with us traveling spanx, has no interest in changing. By being a “good” girl. It would be like Furiosa reverting to the way things were under Immortan Joe. Men must meet her on her terms, and her son – if she can ever call him that again – is the only one who has free rein. Without any feminist platitude, but tons of collateral damage, Ema is going to remake the world in her image, and Di Girolamo’s combustible performance leaves no doubt that she is capable of doing just that. That she will be able to carry out a vague but insane master plan that begins by seducing everyone in sight.
Larraín never explains things, and it’s entirely possible that some amount of social context is lost for non-Chileans. The story is never the primary focus here, as the director pays more attention to Valparaíso’s daytime sunsets, hyper-saturated city streets, and the palpable vapor that emanates from them whenever ‘Ema and her friends decide to fuck. The film is carried by elementary forces and underlying emotional currents; the scenes do not advance the story so much as they work to melt the space between hearts and bodies. Finally, the way Ema moves – the way she wiggles her nose towards someone or rides him in a fluorescent sexual montage – bECOMES the story.
“I teach freedom,” she says to someone who questions her for a job at an elementary school, and she’s not lying. She knows how to get out of the mess she made, but she will have to teach others to cope with it. This process can be mind-numbing at first, especially in the early chunks where Ema is even more frustrated than we are. But once she starts sorting things out, it’s like Di Girolamo is giving Larraín new life, and the movie starts to spread raw feelings in all directions. One extremely unpredictable scene turns into another as “Ema” heads for a magical, swinging ending that her namesake has telegraphed to us every step of the way. “The system is designed to exclude people like you! Ema’s social worker tells her. But the point is, there’s really no one like Ema.
Rating: B +
“Ema” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival.
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