Pablo Larraín’s Ema is woozy, difficult, intense: superbly composed and yet opaque and perhaps only semi-coherent. It’s a study in anger and emotional hurt that feels like a work in progress, an unfinished script the director has put before the camera before its complete development. Yet it is absorbing and challenging, as everything from this film-maker always is. And if, in the end, Ema is a case of style over substance, then that criticism has to be tempered by the realisation that it is more interesting than so many other lower-aiming films that have achieved cohesion on their own less ambitious terms.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer and dance teacher who, with her choreographer partner, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), adopted a troubled child who set fire to the family home – with bizarre and tragic results. The couple then sent this child back to the agency for readoption, something that required a great deal of cajoling and bribery. They instantly regretted this irresponsible admission of defeat, and are now in agonies of rage-filled guilt and mutual recrimination.
Ema goes on an odyssey of destructive sexual exploration and experimentation with her friends, and – even more bizarrely – has somehow got hold of a flame-thrower to carry out acts of nocturnal anarchy and arson, the occasion for many handsomely staged mini-epiphanies of strangeness.
Ema and Gastón’s journey (and only this reality-TV word will do) leads them via a process of anti-serendipity to what they were looking for. Every shot, every scene, has something very good in it; Larraín’s control is a marvel, and Di Girolamo’s dancing is incidentally brilliant. And what does it add up to? In the hands of a lesser director, Ema would have seemed merely preposterous. Here the contrivances are intriguing.
Just as in his earlier film, Jackie, about Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination, Larraín is a master of the physical sense of being in shock.
• Ema is on Mubi from 2 May.
Source: The Guardian