No two Pablo Larrain films are quite the same but, even so, Ema marks a departure. It’s an aggressively alienating story told mostly through dance, always in motion, and though it has Larrain’s typical stylistic flair, it lacks his usual ability to find an emotional resonance within that style. Opaque and packed to bursting with deeply unlikeable characters, Ema has great colour, energy, and sound, but also becomes tiresome as it goes on and on without giving you great reason to care.
Front and centre of Ema are two of Larrain’s most morally compromised protagonists yet. Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) are a couple with an explosive level of hatred for one another, a hatred that evidently spilled over on to their adopted son, who they had to return to the state after he became increasingly violent. Ema and Gaston’s rows mark the highlight of both the film’s acting and of Guillermo Calderon and Alejandro Moreno’s script. They’re vicious and vile, the pair throwing out at least four unforgivable insults per argument, and both Di Girolamo and Bernal are very impressive in the fights, though Bernal otherwise looks a little lost.
Ema regrets the loss of her boy, though, and hatches a convoluted sex scheme to eventually win him back. It’s a plot that takes too long to reveal itself to the audience and then, once revealed, too long to wrap up, even if some individual reveals are effectively nasty and/or funny. Ema is at its best when it’s pretty much ignoring plot and follows its most music video-y instincts. Both an interpretive dancer and a flamethrower-wielding pyromaniac, Ema moves through the city with her troupe in irresistible style, communicating with her body and jets of flame. The colours and lights are gorgeous, and it’s all backed by a really fantastic score.
As great as all its more showy and technical triumphs are, though, there comes a point where you need at least some connection to the characters to back it up, and this is a crucial ingredient that Ema is too often missing. An ambitiously and admirably original offering, Ema can’t match the best of Larrain’s work as, once they start talking, you simply can’t stand to be in its characters’ presences for too long.