It opens with a startling image – overhead traffic lights on fire, blazing against the night sky. Who was behind it is soon revealed, but the reason why is less clear cut. And it’s a taste of what’s to come from Chilean director, Pablo Larrain, in Ema, a film that sounds like an emotional domestic drama, but turns out to be something more – and something a lot harder to pin down.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer, married to choreographer Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is significantly older than her. That wouldn’t matter, except that she sees it as one of the reasons why he can’t give her a baby so all her hopes are pinned on adoption. But that goes disastrously wrong: the boy is taken away from them and they both blame each other for losing him. Except that Ema is determined to get him back and her methods are as dramatic as they are unconventional.
We join the unhappy couple in the aftermath of losing their child. It’s driven a wedge between them so physical contact is minimal and their conversations feel like they’re happening during this age of social distancing: they speak straight to the camera and in close up as the gulf between them gets wider and wider. For some time, it seems like the boy, Polo, will never put in an appearance, but it’s all too apparent that he’s troubled to a We Need To Talk About Kevin extent, having physically scarred Ema’s sister for life and killing the family pet.
Ema’s mission to reclaim Polo is a piece of single minded manipulation, involving tracking down his new foster family, stalking them and getting to know his potential new parents individually. So calculating is she that the two have no idea what’s going on and Ema has to keep her motives closely under wraps. It’s all played out against the dance setting, with its neon lights and striking, electronic score from Nicolas Jaar, which offers her some physical and mental release and, for the audience, provides a welcome change of tone from all the intensity that goes with the domestic side of proceedings. That theme of fire which we saw at the start returns regularly, because she’s also the one with the flamethrower, setting fire to cars, playgrounds, statues. Grand gestures, certainly, but ones that sit awkwardly in the context of the narrative.
Visually, Ema has much to appreciate, strong images and colour, all surrounding an enigmatic central character with a pale, almost immobile face and bleached hair. The narrative takes longer to emerge and only comes to the surface in the second half. While that extra momentum is welcome, the overall feeling is of something less than real, but less than fantasy at the same time. As it slips through your fingers, you can’t avoid the feeling that this is the film that got away, one that could have been deeply absorbing but finished up with little of substance underneath the impressive but sometimes flashy visuals.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Mubi, 2 May 2020 | Dir. Pablo Larrain | Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Cristian Suarez, Giannina Fruttero