Since breaking out internationally with his Oscar nominated 2012 film No, director Pablo Larraín has found his greatest success by keeping one foot firmly in the past. That aforementioned film, an account of the Chilean referendum that booted Pinochet from power, was strikingly filmed to look like the grainy television of the era, and make the archive commercials asking people to cast their vote look less like period throwbacks by design. This same technique was later used to a hauntingly surreal effect in 2016’s Jackie, as Natalie Portman appeared as the former First Lady in recreations of old television shows, the alien nature of the presentation only enveloping us further in her heightened grief and distress.
Ema isn’t Larraín’s first non-period piece, but it is the first to feel like the work of an excitingly contemporary filmmaker. Working with regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, he’s transformed what should be a characteristically feel-bad drama into a vibrant character study, where the inner city streets of Chile are as full of boundless energy as its chaotic titular character. It’s a breath of fresh air from a filmmaker normally accustomed to making period pieces and more oppressive chamber dramas - a film as happy to embrace living in the current moment as the woman at its centre.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gastón (Gael García Bernal) have broken up after their attempts at parenthood went awry; their seven year old adopted son Polo (Cristián Suárez) proved to be a menace, eventually setting fire to their home, leaving them to return him to the orphanage. The pair still work together, with Gastón being the choreographer for Ema’s dance troupe, but things have turned acidic fast - both blame each other for their parental failings, and struggle to hide their contempt for each other. Ema is blunt, mocking Gastón for the infertility that led to adoption in the first place, while his passive aggression does nothing to mask his belief that she is responsible for not controlling Polo’s behaviour. We are witness to the impending fallout in their personal and professional lives, as they try to regain control after something which they are still struggling to reconcile in their differing ways.
The film’s masterstroke is in how it withholds Polo from the audience’s sight for the majority of its running time - remaining ambiguous as to just how much his destructive behaviour was a result of the differing carefree approaches of his parents. If Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story was a tale of separation that didn’t want you to take sides because both were good natured people, then Ema is the thrilling inverse: a story of an estranged couple that draws you in due to their antagonism towards each other, the truth of how responsible they are largely remaining a tantalising ambiguity that makes it impossible to side with either. It should be a frustrating watch for this very reason, and yet it proves intoxicating in practice, transcending the expected narrative limitations you’d expect from a break-up movie.
This is no small part due to Larraín’s commanding sense of style. Ema is one of the few films I’ve seen that features contemporary dance routines that doesn’t feel like its breaking for a music video interlude - here, finding freedom through dance (and in Ema’s case, a form of Reggaeton dancing looked down upon by her ex) provides a form of unspoken catharsis the inconclusive relationship drama refuses to bring. It’s a story that keeps nudging the audience in the direction of operatic tragedy, only to reveal itself to be something far more complicated, and considerably less easy to characterise after just one viewing. And rest assured, this is the rare break-up film so infused with life, that it left me wanting to recapture the moment rather than draining me of all emotional capacities.
There is likely to be some fraught discussion surrounding its lead character, a bisexual woman who seems to have sex with every character she’s introduced to within the drama, and how this could potentially accentuate the most harmful stereotypes. But I think this is something Larraín is keenly aware of, and eventually subverts, as sex (much like dancing) proves to be the only release anybody within Ema’s tangled web of recklessness has from the all encompassing chaos brought to their lives. An extended sex montage using “bisexual lighting”, the term for pink, purple and blue neon lights used simultaneously to mimic the bisexual pride flag, actually manages to rubbish any idea that the film could be problematic - sex and dancing proving to be the only pillars in Ema’s life, largely as they’re the only two areas where she has some form of control. And yet, for all the heightened sensuality onscreen, it’s the intellectual stimulation that proves the film’s biggest asset, with no two viewers liable to read the character and interpret her messy relationship history in the same way. That it does this without ever veering into cheap moralising is nothing short of a miracle.
Ema is available to buy on DVD & Blu-ray from June 29th