Every once in a while, you’ll come across a film burning so brightly it threatens to melt the celluloid. Well, Pablo Larraín’s Ema is a film which radiates with that sort of creative intensity. The Chilean auteur’s radical, exhilarating exploration of a desperate young mother on the edge is singed with flame from start to finish: Ema is burning up inside as she manipulates countless lovers into a hurricane of emotional violence, all in-between sessions of reggaeton dancing and literally setting the city ablaze with a flamethrower. Wild as that may all sound, Larraín’s newest film emerges as an emotionally honest, resonant work about a woman who is determined to forge her own path.
The film opens in the midst of marital trouble between dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal). They have decided to give their adopted son Polo back to child services after he injures Ema’s sister by accidentally setting fire to the home. The regret Ema feels from sending Polo away consumes her entire life, which affects her relationship with Gastón and saps her will to go on without her son. Desperate to get him back, Ema hatches a plot to manipulate Polo’s parents into seeing him again, her plan ensnaring everyone in her life into a twisted web of sex and control.
Ema is startlingly unique and ambitious, composed of many moving parts that are each more rapturous than the last. Whether it’s through masterfully choreographed sequences of dance or hard-hitting explorations of the power of sexual liberation, Larraín is in complete control of his vision, creating a visually dynamic and mesmerizing film that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Despite his seemingly lofty ambitions, the film never collapses beneath its own weight. It’s a relentless, near-hedonistic work of art that surprises with an unflinching, sympathetic view of the complex woman at its center.
The film is tethered together through a commanding turn from Girolamo, who gives one of the bravest, most confident breakout performances in recent memory as the titular Ema. From the moment she first emerges on screen, it’s clear she’s a force to be reckoned with; sporting bleach-blonde hair, a stubborn attitude, and glances that suggest she’s seconds away from consuming you. Girolamo imbues the character with a drive that transforms her instantly fascinating character into an enigmatic, terrifying woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She’s a magnetic screen presence who seems to be peering into your very soul with every harsh stare, transforming what on paper seems to be a larger-than-life, morally dubious character into a human, even sympathetic character. Ema’s tricky code of ethics is rendered believable by Girolamo’s powerful ability to evoke her inner turmoil and mission even as she’s conning her way into another person’s bed. This is a performance from an actor unafraid to push the envelope in pursuit of their character’s emotional truth.
Larraín shoots Ema’s quest to reunite with Polo with a diverse swath of visual styles that turns the film into a trip down the rabbit hole that never fails to entrance you. His collaboration with cinematographer Sergio Armstrong produces startling, innovative work that only deepens the impact of film’s emotional sucker-punches. The dance sequences, filmed with fluid movements and long takes, are hypnotic pieces of choreography that make an already entrancing film lull you deeper into its spell. When the film shifts into Ema’s sexual exploits, it becomes imbued with deep hues and stark contrasts, thus turning these scenes into vivid explosions of color. This is a visually inventive work that serves as a fine example of how taking stylistic risks can have huge rewards when they hone in on a story’s emotional impact.
What makes Ema so noteworthy beyond its jaw-dropping visuals and Girolamo’s powerful performance is its willingness to let its characters be morally layered without pushing them outside the realm what is believable. Everything here feels like one part of a whole, harsh truth, whether it’s the soul-shattering dialogue between Ema and Gastón or the inner workings of Ema’s rebellious girl gang. As shown in Larrain’s previous films No and Jackie, he is a director who isn’t afraid to chip away at his characters’ glossy exteriors in order to expose the truth. Likewise, Ema is interested in exploring if Ema is still capable of love, or even able to achieve happiness, despite her contentment with her increasingly malevolent decisions. This is a character study in every sense of the phrase, but one that actually embraces the the messiness that can come with engaging with that practice. Ema is a riotous, revolutionary text in which the rules of womanhood are constantly rewritten through an audacious, game-changing character whose dances her way over all who oppose her.