Adopting Strategies

After his successful foray into Hollywood with Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larrain is back on home turf. Undoubtedly, Ema will surprise some more familiar with his earlier period work – films like No, Neruda and Post Mortem. His first contemporary story, Ema is a millennial tale set around a dance troupe, where sexuality is almost as fluid as the slick reggaetón moves the members practice. There are times when it feels like a Latin American answer to Gaspar Noé’s Climax, albeit without the heavy doses of L.S.D.

The only real link to Larrain’s earlier work is the casting of Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays the group’s choreographer Gaston. He’s older than his dancers and it shows, but the focus is not him but his wife, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo). Together they have an adopted son, Polo, a troubled child who is near-impossible to discipline. When an arson incident leaves Ema’s sister badly disfigured, they have no choice but to put him back into the adoption system.

Scripted by Larrain, Guillermo Calderon and Alejandro Moreno, this troubling incident is the springboard for Ema to initiate a bizarre plan. With Polo finding new adopted parents, Ema decides to secretly get close to both – firefighter Anibal (Santiago Cabrera) and divorce lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini). Why? Well, that would be spoiling it, but Ema is an unconventional woman tinged with desire, symbolised by her free-wheeling self-expression on the dance floor.

Larrain stages the dance sequences impressively, and Di Girolamo and her fellow dancers are mesmerising to watch. Sadly, there are not enough of these scenes – as Larrain insists on pursuing the film’s unconventional plot that deals with adoption, parenting and setting the traditional family unit ablaze. What’s it all mean? That’s open to interpretation, but at least you can enjoy the dance and immersion into Valparaiso, the colourful Chilean seaport setting.

Whether fans of Larrain’s earlier, more studious works will relate to Ema remains to be seen; there’s something hair-brained about it all, although he does capture the urgency and creativity of artistic expression with real verve. Di Girolamo is also a real find, and hopefully we’ll see more of her in the future. In Ema, as it should be, she leaves the most significant impression.

Ema is available to stream on MUBI from 1 May. For more details, click here.

James Mottram