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Following an accomplished English-language debut with Jackie, Pablo Larrain returns to his native Chile with his first contemporary drama, Ema. Set in the cinematically little-seen seaport of Valparaiso, this twisted story of both a marriage and an artistic collaboration thrown into crisis by a problematic adoption, and a young mother’s byzantine plan to put things right, regrettably is also a rare misstep for the director. A work of self-conscious experimentalism that’s too stilted and distancing to invite involvement, it gets some mileage out of the pulsating rhythms of reggaetón street dance but otherwise is so fragmented it lacks forward motion.
The striking opening shot shows a city street at night with a suspended traffic light in flames, and fire is at the heart of the family’s troubles as well as a recurring visual motif in the film. After adopting an orphan from Colombia named Polo (Cristian Suarez), modern dance choreographer Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a dancer who performs with his company, hit a wall with the kid’s destructive behavior. Following an arson incident where Polo set fire to their home, leading to severe facial disfigurement for Ema’s sister, they have put the preteen boy back into the adoption system.
The visually exciting excerpts of the large dance ensemble performing a piece by Gaston against an elaborate lighting backdrop that throbs like a radioactive planet, or developing a new work in which percussionists move among the dancers with drums strapped to their backs, make for arresting punctuation. But from the start, the choppy dramatic scenes impart the barest splinters of information in a frustrating puzzle that takes way too long to piece together, making Ema play like an avant-garde theater piece you never want to see. This is a movie far too pleased with its tricksy structure and a heightened acting style that lurches between archness and solemnity.
With her punky, androgynous appearance and aggressive manner, Di Girolamo plays Ema as an emotional enigma. But her conflicted thoughts about giving up Polo are revealed when she visits the adoption agency official (Catalina Saavedra) who pulled strings to get the couple a child. The woman angrily advises her to forget the kid and move on, telling her some people are not cut out to be mothers, especially when the going gets tough. Ema and Gaston blame each other for their parenting failure, driving a bitter wedge into their marriage, while members of the dance company and Ema’s colleagues at the school where she teaches young children to use their bodies for physical expression simply regard her as an uncaring mother. This causes her to quit the job she loves. Only the tight-knit girl posse with whom she cuts loose in muscular reggaetón routines remain mostly loyal to her.
All the elements are present in the script by Guillermo Calderon (the director’s co-writer on The Club and Neruda), Larrain and Alejandro Moreno for a raw reflection on family, art and desire in which psychosexual melodrama, Greek tragedy and absurdist dark comedy collide, at times in mischievously amusing scenes. But the approach is so irritatingly mannered that the human pain at the center of the story feels artificial. Everything about Ema is such a pose that even the performance of a talented actor like Bernal, who did memorably intense work for Larrain in Neruda and No, comes off as dull and uninflected. The chief exception is a terrific scene in which he explodes at Ema and her reggaetón sisters in a furious rant that shreds their perceptions of empowerment through eroticized dance.
As the story progresses, there is unquestionably a perverse fascination in its outré development, and Larrain certainly deserves credit for refusing to play it safe at this stage of his distinguished career.
I’m probably giving too much away, but what the heck… Ema forges independent connections with Polo’s new parents — firefighter Anibal (Santiago Cabrera) and divorce lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini) — seducing both and setting in motion her own bizarre campaign to liberate everyone from constricting convention and push the restart button on her family plan. The quest includes a hedonistic sequence in which Ema recruits her dance besties to give Raquel a group thrill, though this seems as much a heterosexual male fantasy as an organic expression of the power of female sexuality.
Polo, who is first glimpsed almost 40 minutes into the movie and thereafter figures only marginally, remains a cipher; his troubled history is secondary to the tiresomely circuitous blather of Ema, Gaston and everyone else. For a long stretch of the action, the boy seems entirely forgotten.
The key rewards of Ema are its slinky visuals. Longtime Larrain cinematography collaborator Sergio Armstrong’s camera snakes around the actors with mesmerizing grace when it’s not locked in monotonous face-forward close shots. And there’s impressive scope in dance interludes staged at various points around the city, capturing choreographer Jose Vidal’s carnal moves with tremendous energy — in vast industrial spaces, by the port, on basketball courts or nestled in the densely populated hills among a maze of apartment blocks. Nicolas Jaar’s inventive score is used to interesting, if sometimes overly portentous effect, often sounding like it’s been slowed down and filtered through dense fog.
But the insurmountable issue with Ema is its cold disconnect between form and content. Any heart the story might have accessed is sacrificed to directorial fussiness and characters both remote and unsympathetic. Coming from such a consistently strong filmmaker, it’s a maddening disappointment.
Production company: Fabula
Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera, Cristian Suarez, Catalina Saavedra
Director: Pablo Larrain
Screenwriters: Guillermo Calderon, Pablo Larrain, Alejandro Moreno
Producer: Juan De Dios Larrain
Executive producers: Rocio Jadue, Mariane Hartard
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Estefania Larrain
Costume designers: Muriel Parra, Felipe Criado
Music: Nicolas Jaar
Editor: Sebastian Sepulveda
Choreographer: Jose Vidal
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Match Factory, CAA
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