‘Ema’ Review: A Spectacle of Ecstatic Abandon
We first meet Ema in the dark of night standing before a blazing traffic light, the camera pulls back to reveal the bulky flamethrower on her back. All at once, the streets’ red glow shifts to green, as the traffic-lights’ still-functional cousins continue to operate as normal – order in the chaos. This is the guiding principle of Pablo Larraín’s new film: a slick, kaleidoscopic ride that playfully teeters on the brink of tragedy with devilish abandon. The result is a mixed-bag especially when the music-video aesthetics wear thin, but if you’re tuned to its wavelength, its infectious insouciant zest may be enough to spirit you away to the tones of Nicolas Jaar’s spectacular score.
The heart of the film is a puzzle-box, but this much is clear: Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) and Gastón (Gael García Bernal) have given up Polo, their adopted son, after less than a year of trying to make it work. The details are murky, but the couple is at each other’s throats about it, spending every minute trading poisonous barbs about who’s at fault. Things get messier as the details roll in and there are more questions than answers. Did Polo put the cat in the freezer? Did he try to incinerate Ema’s sister? The script written by Larraín, Guillermo Calderon, and Alejandro Moreno, bounds from idea to idea, and shock to shock with slippery glee.
The dynamics of the relationship within which Ema is a dancer in a postmodern performance art troupe directed by Gastón, makes one think of Noah Baumbach’s woefully overrated Marriage Story. The key difference being that Baumbach retains a precious earnestness about his couple particularly Driver, while Larraín giddily hammers at their self-absorption imbuing Gastón’s weepy gaze with a jagged irony and relishing his quiet humiliations. Things get more interesting when Gaston gets sidelined entirely as Ema hatches an elaborate plot to get her son back – launching herself like a cruise-missile at Polo’s unsuspecting foster parents.
There’s a Hitchcockian flair for what comes next, as Ema constructs her devious machinations piece by piece and we are pulled-in waiting for the inevitable bomb to go off. It’s in this montage heavy middle that the film finally hits its stride powered by Di Girolamo’s seductive playfulness, boisterous dance numbers, and fevered eroticism. All of this is accompanied by an invigorating soundtrack that shifts from Nicolas Jaar’s hypnotic ambience into the explosive reggaetón of Tomasa del Real. Despite these manic expressions, there is a grounded intensity to the supporting cast; Bernal imbues Gastón with a blistering self-seriousness, while Paola Giannini is pure pathos as the Polo’s new mother falling headfirst into Ema’s clutches.
Yet, all of these fantastic pieces never culminate in something bigger than themselves, and so this charged thrust eventually runs out of steam leading to a sardonic shrug of ending. Despite the fantastic performances a sincere emotional core never materializes and so the film becomes a sputtering engine relying on the pure momentum of its stylish façade to guide it home. Maybe if Ema’s plan culminated in a delicious Hitchcockian set-piece this could have pulled through, but instead, we’re left with a flaccid denouement that feels like a betrayal of the unhinged exuberance that led us there.
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