Ema uses the luscious aspects of music and dance to explore its core themes of self-destruction, politics, and family with a visionary style and great performances.
Pablo Larraín is a great Chilean filmmaker that devotes himself to doing dramas with staggering characters revolving around some form of pique or obsolescence. Most people will recognize him from Jackie (2016), underrated in my opinion, and No (2012). Larraín’s latest feature, Ema, takes a different stroll around the topics he is used to and transforms them into a story with more vibrancy and color by using the art forms of music and dance.
The film switches between the past and present, but the main story centers around a young couple, Ema (Mariana di Girolamo) and Gastón (Gael García Bernal), who adopt a boy named Polo. As problems arise in their household they are unable to raise the child, which forces them to give him back. Now, they must face the aftermath of their failure at parenthood as their relationship turns to shambles, causing them to grow apart and generate a deep sense of frustration and resentment.
There are some similarities with Gaspar Noé’s very provocative Climax as both center around the troubles boiling within a dance studio and using flowing choreography to magnify its intention and symbolism. Like in his previous work, Larraín manages to cut through the deep end of an oppressive system, which “produces” people who can be seen as either victims or perpetrators. He doesn’t hold back in the least. He likes his features to build scorching tension so the audience can interpret it in different ways. Music is the key aspect of this film, continually enhancing the sharp edges of the narrative in both its political and emotional concepts.
There is one specific scene that sums up perfectly how music is sewn into the story. Gastón, a classic dance choreographer, questions Ema, a freestyle dancer, about her love for reggaeton and tells her that it is an inferior form of dance in comparison to his style because it uses sensation and verve rather than structure, however, she doesn’t think so. One criticizes it by calling it undisciplined and juvenile, the other says it is all about bodily freedom and satisfaction, serving as a take on class. Gastón is from a much higher class than her. Ema is younger and her generation has a transient approach to the art form.
Larraín knows how to shape his characters so that they’re grounded yet multi-layered and he makes his actors deliver great and delicate performances, like Natalie Portman in Jackie. Ema gives us a powerful duo in Mariana di Girolamo’s Ema and Gael García Bernal’s Gastón. Both characters are quite similar when they are together, but apart, they work very differently in terms of their actions and emotions. Although both deliver great performances, it is Girolamo’s Ema who has the most interesting arc; she is very contradictory and looks to be driven by a battle of desire & decisiveness as she doesn’t know what she wants exactly.
Larraín takes his time with his films, as most have slow pacing, often building to a finer, more claustrophobic atmosphere, and dwelling on emotional implosions while avoiding melodramatic scenes. Some may say this hurts the film due to the lack of gut-punching drama. However, with compelling characters, beautiful cinematography by Sergio Armstrong, and a nice color palette that inflames its themes, Ema brings us a sensory spectral experience of antipathy that turns into emotional self-annihilation. I can’t wait for what he will do with his Princess Diana biopic, Spencer, which releases later this year.