Following a tragic event perpetuated by their adopted son, Polo, Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) and Gastón’s (Gael García Bernal) marriage is disintegrating. Having returned Polo (Cristián Suárez) to the orphanage, their relationship is one of bitter recrimination, compounded by the fact they also work together in a dance company.
Ema leaves Gastón and tries to reassemble her life. She employs a divorce lawyer and further immerses herself in reggaeton dancing. But their lives are so intertwined that the fractious relationship continues.
Ema, from Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Jackie, No), explores the intense aftermath of a horrifying incident and the impact it has on the lives of those connected to it. But although Ema works well visually, with our titular character finding freedom in dance sequences that contrast with the stark reality of her crumbling everyday life, the film is at times detrimentally confusing, too opaque and struggles to illustrate its character motivation.
For the majority of the movie, it is hard to determine what is driving anyone’s actions, beyond the very basic elements like Ema seeking a divorce. Ema herself is particularly inscrutable. She is initially wracked by guilt over returning the child to the orphanage, but as the movie wears on, it’s hard to know what she subsequently wants or why. The reasons for this do become clear by the end, however it’s all in the service of a conclusion that, while admittedly satisfying, is probably not worth the confusion required in order to set it up.
The resulting disconnect between viewer and character also means that Ema fails to land its punches in a story that should be hitting us hard when dealing with themes of adoption, violence and marital enmity.
The dance sequences are well shot, in the same way as they were in Gaspar Noé’s Climax, and the scenes involving the flamethrower (!) also present an interesting visual, if not any obvious plot relevance. But there are some good performances to be found, particularly from Di Girólamo and the ever-reliable Gael García Bernal. Santiago Cabrera (Star Trek: Picard, Big Little Lies) is also very good as firefighter Aníbal.
Ema is intense and dark, but flawed. Although there is visual appeal in its style and, especially, in the staging of the dance scenes, it is ultimately a tough movie to understand. This makes it quite hard to care about.
‘Ema’ opens in Australian cinemas via Palace Films on May 13th.