A burning, jolting firecracker of a film, Pablo Larraín’s Ema is filled with a surplus of passion that could surprise fans of the filmmaker’s more bottled-up work like Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). It does, however, share those films’ hypnotic and sinuous flow of sight and sound, delivered here with a more modernistic punchy antagonism. There is also frequent deployment of a flamethrower, generally a worthy addition to just about any film.
The titular protagonist (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a hungry-eyed young dancer in an avant-garde Chilean company led by her older and more conservative husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal). They had recently adopted a child, Polo (Cristian Suarez), but gave him up after a series of hazily-described incidents culminated in his putting Ema’s sister into the hospital with severe facial burns.
When the film opens, though, Ema is not begging anyone not to see her as a bad mother. Rather, she is chafing at just about any apparent restriction (moral, legal, artistic) and is lashing out in a somewhat ritualistic purgation of shame through acts ranging from reckless to openly violent. In essence, she is declaring war, though the terms of victory seem forever elusive.
Although many of Ema’s actions—quitting her school teaching job, launching into bitter fights with Gaston, striking up affairs with a broad array of men and women—look chaotic, there is some method to her madness. Having decided that she wants Polo back, Ema begins tracking the new set of parents he has been placed with. With a kind of predatory intent, she hunts down the parents Anibal (Santiago Cabrera) and Raquel (Paola Giannini) and beds them both in parallel affairs that seem designed to somehow undermine their authority and return Polo to her.
At the same time, Ema is pulling away from her work with Gaston, which in the one dance we see—concentric rings of dancers performing before a screen of a blazing red sun—has drama and striking imagery but less passion than she is looking for. Ema and a squad of female dancers peel off to put on impromptu reggaeton-scored dances in scruffy locations like basketball courts and rooftops that are worlds away from Gaston’s more art world-friendly aesthetic and often seem performed only for themselves. They roam through their industrial port city (Valparaiso, photographed in voluptuous tones by Sergio Armstrong and given a darkly voluptuous soundtrack by Nicolas Jaar), acting as a kind of fiercely protective track-suited guard unit for Ema, who leads them into all manner of mischief, from group flirting with Anibal to setting things on fire with a flamethrower leftover from an old performance.
“If you need us to commit a crime, just call,” one says in a way that makes them less dance troupe than roving artistic terror cell with a sideline in free love. Ema is not a leader who brooks dissension. After pushing one of her dancers to sleep with Gaston, Ema storms into their bedroom, hauls the woman out by her hair, and hurls her down the steps before stalking back and throwing Gaston on the bed with a cold carnality.
A lot of Ema depends on taking it as a given that many people will follow along with whatever the heroine wants. This gives her a lot of people as playthings. Larraín makes the most of Di Girolamo’s other-wordly intensity, highlighted by her strikingly slicked-back bright blonde hair, lithely liquid dancing, burning gaze, and cult leader-like ability to make the arguably insane sound not only reasonable but attractive.
The film smartly contrasts the people who fall under Ema’s spell with the very rare person who does not, such as the adoption agency worker who blows off Ema’s entreaties to see Polo with dismissive contempt: “Know what you have left? Dyed hair and a shit husband. Just stick to your fucking dancing.” But Larraín—who co-wrote the screenplay with Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno—does not use his characters to deliver moral diatribes against Ema no matter how manipulative or cruel she is. He also does not try to present her as some antihero.
A couple of scenes reveal just how damaged Ema’s family is, while her bitter fights with Gaston show the two of them to be textbook narcissists (“People love us” Ema says at one point) practically designed to be terrible parents. It does not require a detective to see the connection between her devotion to setting fires (literal and figurative) and what her adopted son did. Ema passes herself off as a free spirit but there’s more than a little ancient tragedian’s fury inside her.
It could be argued that Ema is something of a lie. That for all Ema and her dance team’s bracing talk of cutting through the bourgeois bullshit, their attractively lensed lives present just another fantasy: that of eternal youth, an endless buffet of instant gratification, and no-consequences rebellion in which the police never arrive and the bill never comes due.
In one fiery monologue directed at several of Ema’s confederates, Gaston gives voice to that perspective, describing the thumping reggaeton they are so enamored with as “prison music … a hypnotic rhythm that turns you into a fool” and mocking them for being “convinced by someone that if you moved your little hips you’d be freer.” It’s a speech filled with both truth about the commodification of rebellion and condescendingly paternalistic sexism. For a minute, Ema and her dancers look like teenagers faced by a teacher who is onto their nonsense, but then it’s right back to their guerrilla dance parties and the elusive dream of an endlessly renewing id.