Ema (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Odd, opaque, but fascinating anyway

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Pablo Larraín’s latest work “Ema”, which is going to be released on MUBI in UK, Ireland, and India this week, is often odd and opaque in its clinical character study, but it is still a fascinating experience I will probably not forget for a long time. Because I only watched its trailer without any knowledge, I struggled a bit to discern what it is about at first, but I was drawn to how it is about at least, and I came to admire its mood, storytelling, and performance more even while feeling impatient at times.

The story of the movie is mainly told through the viewpoint of Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a young female dancer who also works as a dance instructor from time to time. She has been one of the main members of a dance troupe led by her choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal), and the early part of the movie often shows her and other troupe members performing together in front of their audiences under Gastón’s direction. As the astronomic image of the sun is glowing in different colors behind them, she and other troupe members dynamically express themselves on the stage, and that is certainly a sight to behold.

Meanwhile, we come to gather what has been troubling the relationship between Ema and Gastón. Some time ago, they adopted a young boy after struggling a lot with their infertility problem, but they turned out to be pretty lousy in taking care of their adopted son, who eventually committed something quite serious as yearning for care and attention from his new parents. While trying to deal with the following consequence, Ema and Gastón promptly decided to give up the boy, but now Ema comes to regret their hasty decision.

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However, it looks like there is nothing she can do for now. When Ema tries to approach to a social worker who may help her, the social worker coldly rejects her while also sharply pointing out why she and her husband should have not tried adoption from the beginning. As she becomes more occupied with how to find the boy and then make amends to him, her relationship with her husband accordingly becomes more strained than before, and her husband comes to reveal more of his nasty sides as clashing with her at their residence.

Not so surprisingly, Ema eventually decides to leave Gastón, and that is the beginning of her odd emotional journey which initially feels rather aimless but gradually becomes more focused step by step. Once she leaves where she has lived with her husband, she comes to the house belonging to one of her close colleagues, and she and her close colleagues subsequently become quite rebellious. At one point later in the film, they come to conflict with Gastón when he and they are going through an artistic improvisation process together, and then she and her close colleagues begin to dance freely outside without Gastón, who is surely not so pleased about that while showing more of his pettiness.

Feeling quite free from Gastón, Ema also willingly hurls herself into a wild sexual experiment, and the movie calmly observes her exploration process which is undeniably associated with her growing sense of artistic freedom. In addition, she has a fun time with a flamethrower which was originally acquired by Gastón for some artistic purpose, and we are accordingly served with several impressive fiery moments, which are vividly and beautifully captured on the screen by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong.

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In the meantime, two outsiders happen to come into Ema’s sexual adventure. She visits a certain female lawyer on one day, and she initially discusses with that female lawyer on how to handle her upcoming divorce process, but it becomes quite clear to us that Ema is more interested in the other thing, as she does an impromptu dance right in front of that female lawyer, who does not reject this move of hers at all and then, mainly thanks to some help from Ema’s gangs, becomes quite close to Ema in the end.

In case of a guy who works as not only a fireman but also a bartender, he happens to encounter Ema shortly after her first naughty trial with that flamethrower. At first, she simply seems to be toying with the possibility of getting her bad deed exposed to this guy, but then it turns out that Ema approaches to this guy as well as that female lawyer with a hidden personal motive behind her back, which incidentally makes the movie veer toward the territory of pulpy psychological thriller films and then arrive in a rather absurd resolution to tickle you.

Never making clear to us what its heroine feels or thinks, the movie continues to move from one curious moment to another under its ambiguous mood, which is occasionally disrupted by a number of brief but lively dance scenes. In addition to holding our attention well via her seemingly detached but endlessly compelling performance, Mariana Di Girolamo is quite captivating in these dance scenes, which are often electrifying as accompanied with the score by Nicolás Jaar.

Overall, “Ema”, which won the UNIMED Award when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival in last year, may require considerable patience from you due to its dry storytelling approach and glacial narrative pacing, but it goes without saying that it is another interesting work from Larraín, who previously gave us “No” (2012), “Neruda” (2016), and “Jackie” (2016). Although I am not so enthusiastic about it unlike some other critics, the movie is a distinctive piece of work nonetheless, and you may give it a chance especially if you are looking for something different.

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