This review of “Ema” was first published after the film’s premiere at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
Several years after Pablo Larraín’s fractured first lady biopic “Jackie” launched the filmmaker from the festival circuit to the Oscar race, the Chilean director returns with “Ema,” a hypnotic new film that builds on the premise of his previous effort while taking it to more formally daring ends.
As with Larraín’s American debut, the Spanish-language “Ema” once again finds the director tracing the complicated emotional life of a fiery female lead, using all the tools of the trade to map the peaks and valleys of a protagonist’s fractured mental state.
The similarities end there, because “Ema” is its own unique beast, a prickly punk remix that takes a traditional art house character study about a young woman dealing with emotional turmoil and filters it through the stylistic approaches more common to recent art-pop hybrids like “Lemonade.”
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But the comparisons are not just limited to Beyoncé’s music video mashup: Sharp and cool and tough as a diamond, the film has a similarly prismatic quality, refracting Larraín’s own pet obsessions, and those of many films in this year’s festival season crop as well.
In terms of story, this tale of a failing marriage between a performer (Mariana di Girolamo) and her director-husband (Gael García Bernal) evokes Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” In terms of theme, “Ema” questions the divisions between biological and chosen families alongside “The Truth,” “Shoplifters” director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s curiosity. As a straight-ahead character study, “Ema” follows a lithe, shock-haired agent of chaos — just like a certain supervillain origin story that hasn’t been getting any press at all.
Herein lies the lure of “Ema”: We’ve not seen something quite like this film before, precisely because it reshuffles so many familiar elements in such an unfamiliar way.
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A bit of context: Newcomer di Girolamo is Ema, a free-spirited reggaeton dancer living with her husband and artistic director Gaston (García Bernal) in the coastal city of Valparaíso. Together, the couple adopted a young Colombian boy some untold amount of time ago. But the boy was trouble, and troubled — he burned Ema’s sister and stuffed a cute dog into a freezer — so the uncertain parents gave the child back. They’re now living with the consequences of that decision, and it’s tearing them up.
While “Ema” lays out all this exposition through its opening salvo, it does so in the guise of a percussive, nearly 20-minute sequence that intercuts between Ema dancing with her company, fighting with her partner, and marauding the late-night streets of her city, lighting them up with a flamethrower.
This impressionistic opening sequence follows the same visual and editing codes of a music video, juxtaposing images that don’t always have a logical coherence — like one shot of Ema dancing with abandon before the next shot, where she is burning traffic lights — but that work together to create larger meaning when set next to one another, then set to a beat.
Still, this is very much a feature film; it just happens to be one that repurposes a style mostly used in short bursts towards more sustained narrative exploration. And that narrative will track the young dancer as she moves through a cycle of loss, first in grieving the collapse of her family and then in putting into a wily plan of action that will involve seducing and deceiving both men and women in the hopes of creating a new kind of family unit in the old one’s stead.
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“Ema” offers no narrative sleights of hand, and it follows its lead as she undertakes her plan without resorting to plot twists or shocking reveals. And though Larraín doesn’t hide anything, he tells the story with an offbeat style that presents images without necessarily telegraphing their importance within the larger plot — in essence, pushing “show, don’t tell” so far so that every that every viewer will come to understand the main character’s larger plans at a different point in the film.
For some, that could be something of a deal-breaker. Like its character, “Ema” is a sleek and standoffish work that forces you to take it on its own terms or not at all. All of which makes the film fascinating to watch, to see it swirl and sway with such defiant confidence, but rather more difficult to connect with.
Halfway through the film, one could find themselves pulled in by its magnetism while still wondering whether they’re even enjoying the experience at all, ready to offer “Ema” a measure of begrudging respect while remaining unsure the film deserves anything more.
To that I say: Have patience. Larraín’s odd little film dances to the beat of its own drum, that’s for certain. But it does pay off in a wholly satisfying way.