Friday 18 October 2019

EMA - London Film Festival review

From Pablo Larrain, the acclaimed director of Tony Manero, No and Jackie, Ema follows a young dancer forced to give up her adopted son after a tragic fire. Deciding she wants to be with him over anything else she has in her life, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is willing to give up her husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), and do whatever is needed to track Polo down and be his mother again, no matter how many lives she has to burn to ashes along the way.

Ema opens with a searingly indelible image, as Ema, decked in protective gear and wielding a flamethrower, looks on at the traffic signal she has just set fire to. It's this flair for pyromania that has caused her world to fall apart, following a fire caused by her son Polo that has burnt and scarred her sister's face and seen him re-enter the care system to be adopted by someone else. The film starts in the wake of this event, and tries to fill in as many of the blanks as it can with an early montage sequence, intercut with a pulsating, modern expressive dance sequence choreographed by Ema's husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), the video screen behind them bathing the dancers in the light of an ever changing sun. It's beautiful and its vibrant, but in what is a common occurrence in the film, the visual display outweighs the reveal of the main story points, leaving us starting on the back foot.

As is quickly revealed, the separation of Ema, Gaston and Polo is one Ema aims to be as temporary as possible, as she hassles Child Protective Services for information on his whereabouts and then unleashes a calculated, often dastardly and cruel plan in order to get back into his life. Using the help of her dance troupe, your feelings towards this masterplan may differ wildly from a display of a mother's unconditional love to unquestionably sociopathic behaviour. What is indisputable is that Ema's methods are morally complex, to say the least.

Personally, I found a whole lot to enjoy in Mariana Di Girolano's performance as Ema as she plays with the lives of others, namely Raquel (Paola Giannini), the divorce lawyer she hires but can only afford to pay in dance, and a firefighter named Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), both of whom Ema has sexually charged relationships with. Her actions are cold, calculated and self-serving for sure, but there's a propulsive drive to the film that doesn't allow you to question her morality plays too much, until her well choreographed plan reaches its crescendo and the true depth of her plan is revealed.

Di Girolamo has a youthful, innocent face that allows her character to get away with the many manipulations she has at work, but along with her selfish behaviour, this counteracts against her standing as an obvious mother figure and can make her seem like a spiteful brat. It doesn't help that Polo isn't much of a presence for a large majority of the film, and seems to be in far safer hands with his new family. It's also surprising that Larrain regular Gael Garcia Bernal's Gaston is such a secondary character in the film and in Ema's life, as the power dynamic between them says a lot in the short time we see them together. There's an argument to be made that Ema is drawn as a modern, unstoppable feminist superhero figure (wielding a flamethrower will do that), using her sexuality to get herself the family she thinks she's entitled to, but the film stops short of tipping too far into pulp territory.

Character flaws aside, what you definitely come away from this film with is how beautiful it is. The dance sequences in warehouses, basketball courts and on rooftops lit by the Chilean hillsides behind them are often breathtaking, and you don't have to come to this film with an appreciation for modern dance to see how visually arresting the movement is. In that respect, Ema, with her shock of slicked back blonde hair, is the perfect centre-point for the film and its exquisitely lit, bold, vibrant colour palette. The dancers, her lovers, the lights, the camera... the whole world literally revolves around her as she moves through it with shark like intensity.

Larrain's films are always well crafted and executed, but to my mind his films have never moved along with such rhythm before, thanks to the infectious reggaeton music that accompanies most of the dances. By the end of this film you may not be a fan of Ema's character, or in fact most of the key characters who will leave you will many moral quandaries. There's a pervasive nature to the film's erotic thriller leanings that are shocking, but after the dust has settled it's the rhythm and the visual flair that will be the enduring elements of the film.


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