The primary motivation of films is to make us feel something - whether it be joy, sadness, entertainment, or even disgust. 'Ema' opens on its lead, in a brilliant performance from Chilean actress Mariana Di Girolamo ('La Verónica'), wielding a flamethrower in the middle of a street she appears determined to burn down. It's intended to leave viewers awestruck, curious, confused - and those emotions do not let up for the entire film. If I had to condense 'Ema' and my feelings towards it in one word, the most fitting would be "unique". There are few films like it from an artistic standpoint, and it is one of very few movies where my opinion is honestly split into two extremes. I know that on the surface level, it speaks to exactly everything I am typically drawn to in a film; on the other hand, I don't remember the last time a film left me this frustrated.
I went into 'Ema' aware only of the colourful dance routines the main character performs throughout the film. I was absolutely not prepared for the caustic tale those dances would help tell. Dancer Ema and her older troupe coach Gastón (Gael García Bernal, 'Wasp Network', 'Coco') have a passionate but tempestuous marriage, one that takes a fatal hit after their infertility-induced adoption of a child named Polo (Cristián Suárez, in his first role). However, Polo is far more of a handful than Ema and Gastón could've ever imagined, taking after his adoptive mother with troubling and life-threating behaviour. The inability of either Ema or Gastón to take responsibility for their role in Polo's behaviour culminates in his return to the orphanage. Childless, lost and broken beyond repair, director Pablo Larraín directs the hell out of Ema and Gastón's train wreck of a marriage, their self-destruction bringing down not just their relationship but their regard for society.
It's a lot to grapple with (or not grapple with - more on that later), but Di Girolamo is absolutely dynamite in the lead role. A turbulent, striking vision of piercings and platinum-blonde hair, her presence is so magnetic that it makes her often horrific actions that much more compelling to watch. Bernal is just as impressive, as Ema goes from needing Gastón desperately to being disgusted at what he cannot give her, often in the one scene. Their relationship, for all its intricacies and complicated history, is authentic (the dialogue was semi-improvised by the actors) and horrific to watch fall apart over and over again. The most poisonous of barbs such as those thrown in the climactic argument of 'Marriage Story' are flung with such casualness by Ema and Gaston that on the surface, it's a wonder their relationship has even made it this far. Your mind is running wild trying to picture what this relationship would've looked like in its prime, and the film's intentionally sparse script allows the audience to wonder just how hard of a fall this relationship has taken. Their pathological dependency on one another despite detesting each other is mirrored in the dances Gastón choreographs for Ema to perform, a literal push and pull of bodies that transcends the cruel words they exchange.
It's a strange feeling to be so torn on how a piece of art makes you feel, but it's obvious Larraín doesn't want his audience to feel comfortable, particularly as the details of Polo's adoption and return are revealed. Admittedly, I have only seen one other film by Larraín - 2016's 'Jackie', which left me so unfulfilled in its emotional impenetrability that I found myself without an incentive to care (an opinion I am well aware is somewhat controversial in cinephile circles). That same energy in Larraín's directing is here too, most notably embodied by the protagonist. Her piercing gaze demands everything you have but guarantees you'll get nothing in return. The life-altering pain she suffers and her subsequent spinning out is completely justified, but it's impossible to ignore just how rotten, privileged and immature she is as a human being. As the film progresses, it becomes harder and harder to sympathise with her and other characters that treat people that they've sworn to protect like garbage, throwing Polo away when things become too hard (call it what it is; child neglect). In a way, her suffering is penance enough, but one can't help but feel that she should really face more consequences. There's a unique wealth of emotions in this film's heart, but it's too busy numbing itself to everything that 'Ema' never gives itself the chance to explore it.
'Ema' is a unique and electric flurry of anger, propelled by unconventionally centred dance routines and a knockout lead performance.
Perhaps by design, 'Ema' is just begging to be involved in in-depth discussions, but the key issue is that the film itself doesn't even really know where to start with them, in the same way its protagonist refuses to address them. The coping mechanisms Ema herself employs to help her through her self-inflicted pain is unsurpisingly self-indulgent - think very naked bodies writhing together under lighting Gaspar Noé ('Climax') would drool over. Adoption films are a dime a dozen, but none in recent memory tackle the topic in the way 'Ema' does, and as a result it's not the audience's place to comment on the way the protagonist deals with her decisions; it's a rare scenario that hasn't been all-too thoroughly explored.
Despite my criticism and confusion while organising my own personal feelings towards 'Ema', it is still a film that's absolutely worth your time. It is a unique and electric flurry of anger propelled by unconventionally centred dance routines and a knockout lead performance. It's just a shame that 'Ema' would rather delight in how the shrapnel hits its characters instead of exploring the torrent of emotions beneath the explosion itself.