Valparaiso, Chile. The present day. A street light hangs in flames, victim of a pyromaniac attack by dancer/teacher/walking basket case Ema (Mariana Di Girólama), who we first see carrying a flame thrower. She has what we used to call bottle blonde hair, a barely visible nose ring, and a much more prominent long and thin earring which pokes out perpendicular to her ear.
In the opening scenes, we see Ema in a series of social situations. So, here’s Ema talking to a social worker about the adopted child, Polo, that she’s given away, here she is on the stage in a body stocking in a modern dance performance, here she is in a hospital at the bedside of a badly burned woman, offering to give “a litre or more” of blood, here she is in a tracksuit, teaching a class of kids to dance.
And there she is with her husband Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal). They’re both trying to come to terms with the adopted kid thing. It gradually becomes clear that the woman in hospital is Ema’s sister and that her injuries were the result of Polo trying to burn down the house. Later we encounter a cat that he’d put in the freezer. Ema and Gastón blame themselves for Polo’s delinquency, but increasingly, and vocally, they blame each other.
Ema is hauled into a meeting at the school where she works, and where Polo was a pupil. Her fellow teachers don’t look keen on working with her again. Her social worker also sees her as an unfit mother and shouts that Polo has been “adopted by another mum who’s better than you.” On the other hand, Ema’s fellow dancers put the blame on Gastón, who as well as being Ema’s husband is their choreographer.
Ema and Gastón fight then they fuck then they fight again. They are mentally cruel to each other, although this is obviously in part their way of dealing with the grieving process of losing a son, even if they took the joint decision of giving him up. Ema accuses Gastón of infertility, although as with much of their fighting, it’s not too easy to know how much either of them means what they say when they’re lashing out helplessly.
On the (many) occasions that she’s not seeing Gastón, Ema prowls the local bars with her posse of female dancers, intimidating the bartenders, and having sex with passing men, and women, and with each other. Much of this is done in the format of Reggaeton street dance, so it’s not always clear where the story ends and a performance begins.
What to make of this? Well, if you’ve come expecting clarity and a linear plot then you’re at the wrong film. At times, Ema (both the film and the woman) has a certain obliqueness that means that the best way of dealing with it is to let the whole thing wash over you. It all has the feel of a dance piece, which means that if you try to make sense of it all, it just loses the magic.
I would say that the film is at its weakest where it’s dependent on plot, particularly after the initial setup. The film resolves itself in ways that cannot be explained without massive plot spoilers, but which display a cynical view of humanity and of Ema that is lacking in the otherwise visually exciting film. You get more out of watching the occasional pyrotechnics than in investing too much emotion in who is doing what to whom.
Having said this, both leads are tremendous. Di Girólama takes centre stage throughout, and this is very much a film led by the female actor, even though her co-star is much more established. For his part, Bernal stays in the background for a large part of the film, leaving us not quite sure how much he is complicit in the problems or whether he is floating in the wake of someone else’s disaster.
Some films I would recommend heartily without reservation. Others I will loudly tell people to avoid. With Ema, I’m really not so sure. I’m pretty certain that some people whose views I respect deeply will absolutely hate it. And others will feel much more warmly that I. But it is worth a go, not least because it successfully uses a new cinematic language that you’ll rarely find elsewhere.