Pablo Larraín breaks new ground - for better or worse.


Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal


Most of Pablo Larraín's films have been set in his native Chile reflecting directly or otherwise that country's history of the last fifty years or so. But the style that he has adopted has varied over time and it was significant that when making Neruda in 2016 his take on the poet's life broke away drastically from that of the standard biopic. That work moved into decidedly non-naturalistic areas, but this new piece, Ema, seems even more experimental in style. Consequently, his many admirers will certainly want to see this film in order to assess it for themselves, but it is likely that reactions will differ. Already a critic writing for Sight & Sound has remarked that Ema prompts multiple, often contradictory readings. That was said in a complimentary review, but I for one regard that as an indication of just how odd and elusive this film is.


On paper the story may sound rather unusual but for all that it leads one to expect a comparatively straightforward film. It is set in Valparaiso where the titular figure played by relative newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo is a dancer in a company run by her husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), who is some twelve years older than Ema. Having no children of their own, they had decided to adopt but the young boy chosen, Polo (Cristián Suárez), starts to behave in alarming ways such as starting fires and causing injuries. This understandably causes them to reject him and as a result he goes to other adoptive parents, but Ema is unhappy with what they have done, talks of divorce and sets off to make fresh contact with Polo.


That is a tale that could have been told clearly and naturalistically but the screenplay (one on which Larraín himself is a co-writer) chooses to elaborate it in strange ways. Thus it is that the film's opening scene reveals that Ema quite as much as Polo has a habit of starting fires and her behaviour as she takes her own path involves the sexual seduction of a fireman (Santiago Cabrera) and of a female lawyer (Paola Giannini). Given the unexpected resolution of Ema, this could all be part of a plan to lead to this very end, but quite deliberately the telling of the story is done in a mode that I can only call impressionistic.


This approach means on the one hand that at times the tale takes on what could be thought of as allegorical elements with Ema's sexual behaviour bringing to mind Pasolini's fable-like Theorem (1968). For that matter the repeated indications of pyromania are capable of being seen as symbolic and related to the film's free-wheeling outlook on sex. But at the same time the film's dance background results in much intercutting between narrative scenes (in themselves often oblique and not easy to follow) and sequences featuring dance both in rehearsal and on stage. Time is also found for talk about creativity and the aims of art but this tends to be high-flown rather than illuminating. The way in which all this is put together draws extra attention to certain lines of dialogue that are to be heard ranging from Gaston's incredulous "What was that?" to the comment "This doesn't make sense any more".


Nevertheless, two things can be said about Ema with absolute certainty. One is that, even if Ema's white-dyed hair did not provide a strikingly individual look in itself, the sense of presence that Mariana Di Girolamo brings to the screen would be memorable. The other is to assert the importance of the contribution of Larraín's regular photographer Sergio Armstrong who here creates a vibrantly colourful work. Some of this is related to the backcloth designs for the stage performances but it also extends to the stylised colour that features on occasion in exterior scenes. The latter aspect again emphasises the fact that Ema is not seeking to be a naturalistic drama, but just what it is seeking to be eludes me. Its mysterious nature will intrigue some but, if they will relish the opportunity to consider the multiplicity of possible readings that some have welcomed, my own problem lies less with conflicting interpretations than with my inability to find any reading at all that makes for satisfactory viewing. But I will not forget Mariana Di Girolamo.




Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini, Cristián Suárez, Giannina Fruttero, Mariana Loyola, Eduardo Paxeco.


Dir Pablo Larraín, Pro Juan De Dios Larraín, Screenplay Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín and Alejandro Moreno, Ph Sergio Armstrong, Art Dir Estefania Larraín, Ed Sebastián Sepúlveda, Music Nicolas Jaar, Costumes Muriel Parra and Felipe Criado.


107 mins. Chile. 2019. Rel: 2 May 2020. Cert. 15.