Ema (Chile, 2019)

Lurid tale

I’ve really enjoyed the two Pablo Larraín directed films I’ve seen: No (Chile-France-Mexico-US, 2012) and the brilliant Jackie. In comparison Ema is disappointing (it’s on MUBI this month), though the problems with it are to do with Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s script rather than direction and performance.

A film featuring Gael García Bernal is always going to be worth seeing though he’s only in the supporting role of Gastón and even he struggles to make his choreographer character convincing. He’s married to Mariana Di Girolamo’s Ema and at the start they have returned a 9-year-old child they adopted to Children’s Services because he was too difficult for them. Hence it’s difficult to warm to the principles but I think the film assumes you will, at least, sympathise with Ema. The way the child, toward the end, is able to rationalise his rejection is beyond belief. And ‘beyond belief’ characterises the narrative contrivances of the film though that would not matter if the melodramatic contortions had been psychologically convincing: they were not.

However Di Girolamo’s performance is superb and Larraín’s direction brilliant; Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography and Estefania Larrain’s set design are also stunning. Nicolas Jaar supplies the excellent music. Lurid green is a key colour and in this context one I associated it with envy and decadence; but the narrative doesn’t support that reading. Hence there is a disconnect between the ‘moral’ of the tale and the look.

The narrative posits an opposition between conventional modern ballet and Reggaeton, street  dancing and music. Gastón reviles the latter, finding it crude, whilst Ema revels in its subversive qualities. Their marriage is crumbling and their artistic differences could have been emblematic of that: Gastón as a conventional bourgeois vs. the street subversiveness of Ema. However, in a scene with a social worker, it is clear that Gastón too is beyond the (at least in Chile) bourgeois pale. I mention Chile because homophobia, as its portrayed in the film, seems more overt than it is in other western countries (Gastón isn’t gay however is assumed to be because of his profession). Indeed, the dancing of both forms is brilliant however it skews the narrative as too long is spent indulging in watching performances when they’re not linked clearly to the film’s themes.

Ema has a penchant for using a flame thrower, another metaphor for burning away bourgeoise sensibilities; however, as in the dancing, on screen the pyromaniac scenes just looked great without convincing they were informing the narrative. I think The Guardian review nailed it when saying the script was under-cooked.

All that said, if you have access to MUBI I recommend watching it!

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