Pablo Larrain’s last film, Jackie, was a film whose ending seemed like an ongoing cascade of concluding imagery, its many blended themes finally untangling, and each given its own singular final flourish. It felt like the film ended for 15 minutes straight, but oh, what an ending. Conversely, Larrain’s latest film, Ema, feels like it’s constantly beginning, the persistent juxtaposition of an elaborate interpretive dance performance against sequences of desperate, aching humanity alternating as if the story and its characters are struggling to break free from a loop. Or maybe these images aren’t contrasts at all, but rather are reflections of the same performative verve, playing for an audience to extract the desired response.
The film functions in much the same way, vacillating between exhilarating and infuriating, unfolding in sequences of complicated, sometimes contradictory emotional peaks, telling a story in what feels like an indeterminate chronology. Its frustrating nature does nothing to diminish its allure, however. In fact, that frustration is what keeps the viewer glued to the screen – the film keeps the audience suspended in a perpetual wait for a Big Reveal, the key that unlocks the film’s fractured observational form. That the key always seems just out of reach is part of the sly game the film plays with the audience – it’s always a step ahead, dangling the carrot and yanking it back as we reach. It’s a sadistic little dalliance, but one to which we willingly submit.
That giddy duplicity is what inextricably links Ema to its eponymous character; in all honesty, one could posit the character is pulling all the film’s strings. Mariana Di Girolamo plays Ema as a shapeshifter who is so utterly convincing in every subsequent form that we’re left stunned each time she sheds a new layer of skin. We meet her in the throes of depression over the loss of her adopted son, pleading with a social worker for updates and seeking eventual reconciliation. She seems frayed and desperate, her life spiraling as erratically as the rhythms of Reggaeton dance she performs with a troupe that’s directed by her controlling husband, Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal). Her day job is teaching dance to elementary schoolers, which she seems to cling to as both a conduit to her lost son and as a lifeline for her own freedom.
All of the above would be enough for a compelling character study, but in Ema the study shifts directions as the character gradually reveals more of herself. We soon learn that the adopted son wasn’t taken from Ema – she gave him up. After nearly a year of escalating bad behavior, the boy started a fire that left Ema’s sister severely burned, prompting Ema and Gaston to return him to state custody. The inherent contradiction of yearning for that which she voluntarily gave away is just the tip of the iceberg for Ema, whose confounding layers are revealed without warning and presented without clear context, so we are always questioning if she – and the film – are on the level.
Her relationship with Gaston is itself a contradiction, an incessant array of cutting insults and doe eyed “I love you”s that makes the word “tempestuous” seem quaint. Ema moves to file for divorce, and she seems to spark an instant romantic connection with her lawyer, but then she pursues a parallel relationship with the lawyer’s husband, and neither is the wiser. Whether she is recklessly navigating her way through a trauma response or piecing together a deviant master plan, Ema’s commitment to a sustained downward spiral is as impressive as it is maddening.
Following her lead, the film refuses to tip its hand, acting more as Ema’s accomplice than the audience’s tour guide. What results is a feeling of the rug constantly being pulled out from under us, but at least we get a whole new viewpoint after each fall. Larrain effectively fuses form with character, delivering a film whose stylistic and narrative panache is undeniably captivating but whose point-of-view is so shifty it’s dizzying. Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography is a rainbow of neon, adjusting its hues as Ema leads us through her labyrinthine journey. Sebastian Sepulveda’s pulses rhythmically with a flow reminiscent of Ema’s dance moves. The one independent force seems to be Nicolas Jaer’s score, which maintains a persistent drone of unease, as if it’s aware of where we’re headed even as we remain unsure. But the uncertainty becomes a form of euphoric expression in Ema, which never fully distances itself from that opening sequence – it flows freely like a dance, constantly inventing and reinventing, moving to a propulsive beat all its own, in fits and starts that eventually, somehow, form an enthralling cohesive whole.