The great Chilean director Pablo Larraín specialises in dark psychological reflections on the past, notably his trilogy of Chilean dictatorship dramas – Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No – and his English-language debut about the personal aftermath of the JFK assassination, Jackie.
So Ema is a departure, a contemporary story, focused primarily on young people and with a familiar topic: parenthood. It’s looser, sexier, more playful than his other films. What remains, though, is the narrative invention, Larraín’s penchant for the diabolical twist, and the sheer élan of his filmmaking.
The setting is the seaport city of Valparaíso. Here twenty-something dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her older, choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) are at a crisis of their own making. Their 10-year-old adopted son Polo has just committed an act of arson with terrible consequences. Rather than stand by him, this narcissistic, high-maintenance couple have handed him back to the authorities.
Their life now is a toxic mixture of blame and pain. “You taught him to burn things” he chides, while she mocks his infertility. But while Gastón is intent on moving on, Ema decides to win her son back.
The context for Ema’s life and redemption is the world of dance, from Gastón’s artfully choreographed shows, to her new, preferred mode of expression – on the streets, to the urgent, rhythmic beats of reggaeton. When she’s not dancing, or teaching dance, she’s hatching a cunning plan that involves a divorce lawyer, a fireman, a lot of sex and the continuing dance of marital discord.
Fuelled by a pulsating soundtrack and finding visual stimulus in this beautiful city that straddles the sea and hills, Larraín’s direction conjures electrifying dance sequences and one mouth-watering, colour-saturated image after another, not least those involving Ema’s exploits with a flame thrower.
His story, daring in its choice of amoral protagonists, is held together by the charismatic presence of the slightly built, peroxide Di Girolamo. Commendably, the actress doesn’t try to win easy sympathy for her anarchic heroine, earning it inch by inch as her character rebuilds her life. Bernal unselfishly sits on the side-lines, as a weak man who needs someone else to steer him towards the right path.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk