Ema (Cert 15)

VOD (Distributor: MUBI) Running Time: 107 minutes approx.

Motherhood is never easy but then again, it is not something that can be prepared for, only advised about, and supported through. Mistakes will be made, some can be rectified, others will have consequences, unless there is a way back.

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a young dancer in a toxic and crumbling marriage to older choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) following the decision to return their adopted son Polo after he burned his aunt’s face with fire. Now regretful of her decision, Ema wants Polo back but child services won’t allow it as Polo has a new family, and with Ema and Gastón blaming each other for their issues, Ema doesn’t have his support either.

Undeterred, Ema takes it upon herself to get Polo back alone, launching an elaborate plan to find Polo and win him back at any cost. Using her dancing skills, spunky guile, and raw sexuality towards both genders, and with help from members her dance troupe, lives are about to be changed as Ema embarks on this important life mission.

There is so much to unpack about Ema, the synopsis really doesn’t do it justice yet paradoxically these two paragraphs amount to the sum of the main plot, without spoiling a few other details. Chilean director Pablo Larraín has never been what you would call a “straightforward” filmmaker in the sense his personal quirks dictate the end product’s accessibility, but Ema sees him forge a new, more obtuse path.

Cinematic taste being what it is, no doubt this challenging approach to Ema will be what appeals to many filmgoers, just as others will be justifiably bemused and frustrated. In this instance, Larraín caters to the arthouse crowd with the oblique, fractured narrative, the artistically inclined with its stunningly visual modern vibrancy, and the mainstream who like a good family drama.

Yet ironically, it isn’t a film for everyone which is either its greatest enigma or biggest downfall; the best part is you’ll soon know within a few minutes in, the worst part, you’ll miss out if you give up too early. This is indicative of Larraín’s general refusal to let the audience into his world without making them work for it, opening with a shot of traffic light ablaze in the dawn light with Ema standing in the distance with a flamethrower.

Jumping between timelines without warning, pieces of the story are dropped into our laps and it is up to us to see where they fit. To establish the central premise, Ema is shown arguing with child services over getting Polo back whilst confusingly interspersed with an amazingly shot dance routine performed against a huge glowing sci-fi-esque red orb backdrop, to set up her dancing credentials.

Arguments with Gastón ensue with neither giving the other any quarter, making it rather ambiguous as to whom we should be rooting for, although the real answer would appear to be neither. Because of her punkish appearance with piercings, slicked back peroxide blonde hair, and tracksuit attire, Ema permeates a chav-like anti-social aura that invites judgement from the audience but are we being too quick to judge?

With the story unfolding randomly as a series of recorded incidents, many of which seem discordant in relation to the plot, this early negative impression is perpetuated further when Ema seduces married fireman Aníbal (Santiago Cabrera) after he puts out one of her fires, after Ema hires divorce lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini), whose fee she gets waivered by seducing her. Both of Ema’s new lovers are also in unhappy marriages but that isn’t the real issue, something Larraín uncharacteristically reveals early on.

Such rampant promiscuity might seem tawdry but it serves a purpose, relishing the power of the libido. That Gastón is sterile is why they adopted Polo in the first place, so Aníbal’s virility is an understandable attraction for Ema; her attraction to women might be a symbolism of her being a free spirit that the uptight Gastón can’t control.

Freedom is a commonly discussed concept here, whether the freedom to love, enjoy sex, dance how they want, or live without oppression. To expand upon this, Larraín either creates a new form of female hedonism or is merely depicting the decadence of modern Chilean women, having his defiant, sassy, urban girls lay waste to all in front of them through acts of sexual abandon and pyromania.

Much of this seems remotely distant from the premise of Ema getting Polo back, but much of it is relevant to Ema’s plan. It is fascinating to witness all of this and wonder how someone like Ema could let anywhere near a child let alone be a mother, but maybe that is what Larraín is discussing – the maternal love without which child and mother are lost.

I’m sure I’m wrong so don’t be alarmed if this doesn’t come across for you – I suspect you’d be distracted by the awe-inspiring imagery to notice any messages being imparted. Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography is not just bursting with vivid colours and bristling with energy but the compositions are a veritable gallery of stunning tableaux, rich with neon effervescence and artistic splendour.

Then there is the blistering performance from Mariana Di Girolamo in the title role, fully justifying why the films is about her and not Polo. Behind the aggressive look, which also informs the fluid, kinetic dancing, is a mesmeric quality to Di Girolamo’s portrayal that it becomes incidental, we become invested in the character instead. The problem is she so effective she eclipses everything, even Gael García Bernal.

Whether you get or appreciate Ema or not, it is certainly an unforgettable ride that only reveals its true magic once it is over and you start thinking about how the individual elements come together. I would have liked more discussion on the moral aspect of re-adopting a child but that is not on the agenda, leaving the film to feel like an exercise in style over substance, but what style it is.

Rating – *** ½  

Man In Black