Ema

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Ema
"Di Girolamo has a compelling intensity in the role but it's still hard to believe that everyone would fall quite so hard and fast for Ema's devil may care charms and unpredictability, especially with so much on the line." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There's no doubting this film about a couple whose adoption has gone sour is by Chilean director Pablo Larraín. It comes complete with his regular themes concerning obsession and amoral antiheroes and is crafted with his eye for strong colour aesthetics and framing. But it is more experimental than much of the rest of his work and less cohesive and successful as a result. He offers a loose narrative built on the mystery surrounding what happened to Polo (Cristián Suárez), a little boy adopted by reggaeton dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal) and the lengths Ema might be prepared to go to in order to get him back.

Like Larraín's previous antiheroes, including Raul in Tony Manero and Post Mortem's Mario, Ema operates entirely according to her own set of rules - which are subject to change at any moment. The focused but destructive side of her personality is revealed in the film's opening scenes in which we watch a dangling traffic light burn - captured beautifully by the directors regular collaborator Sergio Armstrong as the other lights around it blink from red to green - before seeing her kitted out in the sort of flame-throwing outfit usually reserved for Arctic horror films.

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The strong colour coding of this scene carries on throughout the film - where Amber flames split the sky, dance scenes are captured in front of images of a seething, molten Sun or moments of passion are drenched in pink, green or blue light. The port waterfront of Valparaiso is also employed as a distinctive backdrop, particularly in scenes where Ema is scene dancing against the dying light. But though these choreographed moments are beautiful, the narrative, revealed in jagged, elliptical chunks, never quite gathers momentum. We see Ema and Gaston tearing at one another verbally in the blame game they have built surrounding their failed adoption, at the same time as Ema begins to insinuate her way into Polo's new life with replacement parents Anibal (Santiago Cabrera) and Raquel (Paola Giannini). That Anibal is a firefighter is just one element that makes Larraín's latest - written by Guillermo Calderón , Alejandro Moreno - feel too on the nose.

There's a sense that Ema is playing a succession of roles - the mother, the wife, the sexually free spirit - as though trying them on for size, although the way that others seem to fall all too quickly into her pre-choreographed roles for them never quite rings true. Di Girolamo has a compelling intensity in the role but it's still hard to believe that everyone would fall quite so hard and fast for Ema's  devil may care charms and unpredictability, especially with so much on the line. Still, the psychological undertow of all this, regarding the dispensibility or otherwise of parenthood and the effects that might have on a new generation are intriguing even if they are under-explored. You get the distinct impression that Larraín and his collaborators are so focused on the performance of all the film's elements that they forget to make sure we are absorbed by the overall dance - but many of those elements are compelling in their own right.

Ema is currently available to watch in MUBI in the UK.

Reviewed on: 05 May 2020
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A dancer and her choreographer husband find themselves trying to stop their lives falling apart after an adoption goes awry.
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