LFF 2019: Ema

Starring Pablo Mariana di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's new film is a seductive, opaque study of grief and sex

Film Review by Thomas Atkinson | 14 Oct 2019
  • Ema
Film title: Ema
Director: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Mariana di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal

Just as the dance at the beginning of Pablo Larraín’s Ema features bodies thrusting towards and then pulling away from each other, the film finds the eponymous dancer (played by Mariana di Girolamo) and her choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), spiralling away from and falling back into the arms of their spouse.

At first, their wayward behaviour – particularly that of Ema's, who has taken to arson and polyamorous sex – seems an expression of grief. They’ve just given their adoptive son away because of his setting of fires and harming of Ema’s sister. The pair are wrapped in guilt and also blaming each other. But Ema’s polyamory leads her into relationships with both sides of another marriage, one a divorce lawyer, the other a firefighter. The married couple have a child of their own, and Ema – on the outside looking in – appears to be feeling her way around someone else’s family unit so she can better rebuild her own.

Ema remains an opaque protagonist, however, rarely letting on whether her pinwheel approach to sex, illustrated in ragingly erotic montage, is a subconscious coping mechanism or the actualisation of desires she knows she has – or both. Just as ambiguous and nebulous is the film’s definition of family. At first, it’s a tight unit, for whom losing a member is akin to losing a limb; then it’s a porous organism to be infiltrated. Finally, it’s something larger and even stranger than before.

And then there’s the film’s powerful style, which contradicts itself all the time. The colours are deep, but the deepest ones come from the artificial glow of a disco light; Nicolas Jaar’s excellent score is emotionally fluid and hazy; the sex sequences aren’t depraved but they’re weighted with a sense of loss. Through it all, Larraín plays his cards thrillingly close to his chest, and the audience’s only tether to the film is its near-physical power.

Ema had its UK premiere at London Film Festival, and will be released by MUBI