TIFF19 REVIEW: Ema [2019]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: September 26th, 2019 (Chile)
    Studio: Fabula
    Director(s): Pablo Larraín
    Writer(s): Pablo Larraín, Guillermo Calderón & Alejandro Moreno

You’ll forget all this.

There’s a lot to unpack in Pablo Larraín‘s dance film Ema. From two lead characters as unreliable to the plot as they are fickle with each other to an elaborate scheme preying on the weaknesses of man and the pleasures of flesh, it’s tough to know what the director wants us to laugh at: the wildly unorthodox situations he’s created or the sociopathic characters within. I think his hope is the former as his talk after the screening heard him admitting he didn’t like the reggaetón style, but knew it was necessary to give this younger generation its voice. Doing that only to intentionally mock them as selfishly duplicitous and unstable brats would seem counterintuitive. To my disappointment, however, that’s how it ultimately felt—more farce than melodrama.

The more absurd Larraín and co-writers Alejandro Moreno and Guillermo Calderón go, the harder it is to truly care about his leads. Gael García Bernal‘s Gastón is a gas-lighting piece of work who’ll throw you under the bus the second you dare critique him and Mariana di Girolamo‘s Ema is a destructive nightmare whose ambitious plan to reclaim her agency as a mother involves ruining the lives of strangers with the help of her equally criminal dance troupe. The filmmakers want this to be about empowerment, but it’s actually manipulation. By the end everyone should fear Ema like her son Polo’s adoption caseworker (Catalina Saavedra). Instead they love her. Their shame thus trumps her deceptions and they happily orbit her sun as supplicating sex fiends hypnotized by her body.

I’m not sure there’s anything more to say. Ema and Gastón’s boy did something horrible and they gave him back. They looked at what happened and decided to cut their losses rather than put him on a new path towards redemption. It’s not hard to imagine this choice considering the two can’t think about anything other than their own self-interest for a significant length of time. They need to stop pretending to be parents and stick to the dancing (he choreographs the prestige group she’s a member of when she’s not performing reggaetón in the streets with friends) because they’re more interested in the idea of raising children as something to do than an actual privilege itself. Now that some time has past, however, they’ve changed their minds.

If the little pyromaniac wasn’t messed up already, this yo-yoing of being loved, abandoned, and missed will surely exacerbate things. Will Ema accept this truth? Of course not. All she cares about is the way Gastón’s dancers and her fellow teachers at school treat her because of what she did. No one can fathom this couple’s monstrousness to cut bait and leave and they don’t hold back insofar as letting it be known. What we have then are two adults too worried their child’s actions would ruin their lives to realize ruining his is actually much worse for their image. So Ema takes charge of her desires and kicks Gastón to the curb before hatching a hair-brained scheme less about “free love” than it is coercive emotional blackmail.

What follows is a rather hollow progression of mean-spirited humor (Saavedra chastising Ema and Gastón or those two hurling insults at each other because they each want the last word to renounce personal blame). It’s often funny, but to what end? They’re horrible people who shouldn’t have a child and yet the entire film is a malicious attempt at reclaiming one—something that’s objectively not funny at all. Because young Polo’s absence fuels their ability to hurt each other’s feelings, he’s always a pawn in their story and never treated as a real boy with a voice of his own. Ema wants him back and that’s that. She will do whatever it takes and her best friends readily admit they’d commit crimes to help achieve that goal.

So where does her divorce lawyer (Paola Giannini), a fireman/bartender (Santiago Cabrera), and her post-separation roommate (Josefina Fiebelkorn) fit into that equation? They must be important somehow or else she wouldn’t spend so much time seducing them. Since it’s not for the purposes of jealousy considering Gastón takes a backseat for a majority of the film’s second half, we inherently hope for some crazy payoff that will make our time with deplorable egomaniacs well spent. Despite the result being sufficiently wild, however, it still cannot pique enough interest to care about what happens. Spend a few minutes with them and you realize they’re probably the reason Polo did what he did. He deserves better than the opportunistic affection (and absolutely nothing else) that they’ll provide him.

If not for the dance sequences, Ema would be a complete misfire. I love the opening number where Larraín expertly cuts Gastón’s performers (in front of a projection screen with a giant, color-changing sun on it) with exposition-heavy vignettes that gradually allow the main characters to come into focus. It’s only when we’re left with the deadpan things Ema and Gastón do that we realize we’ve been languishing in the boredom of repetitive confrontations that go nowhere besides cheap laughter. A reggaetón number arrives to distract us with kinetic beauty to remember these people can be generous if allowed. But while this ensures the craft on display isn’t up for debate, the story and motivations are. I simply couldn’t engage any of it on a level beyond superficiality.

courtesy of TIFF

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