After a foray into English-language cinema with historical drama Jackie a few years ago, acclaimed Chilean director Pablo Larraín returns to his mother-tongue to tell an intimate story set in his hometown. The plot follows dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) in the aftermath of a tragedy that ended her marriage with choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal). When their adopted son Polo started a housefire which had dire consequences for the family, he was subsequently taken away from the couple. Reeling with grief and frustration, we see Ema react in unpredictable, volatile ways.
When teaching dance to young children in warehouse workshops, Ema tells kids to ‘rebel against the control and discipline’. This could be said of Larraín’s filmmaking approach as he, along with screenwriters Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno, endeavours to challenge the conventions of storytelling. Using contemporary dance as a vibrant neon-tinged backdrop complimented by an ambient score, the narrative is feral and uninhibited. Scenes switch between artistic reggaeton sequences and passionate moments of conflict between former lovers, but the motivations of the eponymous protagonist remain quite unclear.
Having worked with him on previous projects, Gael García Bernal appears well versed in the methods of Larraín. He delivers a fiery performance as Gastón threatens to boil over with trauma, but mostly takes a backseat to the titular turn of Mariana Di Girólamo. She proves to be an interesting screen presence in her debut leading role, but the character study itself is problematic. With no moral compass in sight and humanity scarred by loss, it is difficult to like or even connect emotionally to Ema or any of the other characters involved.
Ema has a vivid experimental style whilst dealing with sexually explicit and often harrowing subject matter, and Pablo Larraín expresses versatility as a director to handle the tonal shifts of a complex story. Like the medium of modern dance, the desired effect is left very much open to interpretation and while I appreciate the striking aesthetics of the piece, I struggled to be moved by the rhythm of its beats.