The Movie Waffler New Release Review [MUBI] - EMA | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review [MUBI] - EMA

ema film review
A dancer takes extreme measures to be reunited with her adopted son.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Pablo Larraín

Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Cristian Suares, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera

ema film poster


John Carpenter's Halloween closes with an eerie montage of empty spaces. Out of context they seem innocuous enough - suburban streets, living rooms, staircases - but they've been tainted by the presence of the movie's villain, masked psycho Michael Myers. There are two moments in Pablo Larraín's Ema that made me think of Halloween's conclusion. One is a montage of items burning on the streets of the film's Valparaiso, Chile locale - cars, swings, a traffic light - having been set alight by its arsonist anti-hero, the eponymous Ema (Mariano Di Girolama). The other comes in its closing moments, constructed of close-ups of the faces of various people we've met during the film, all of whose lives have been disrupted by Ema throughout its course. Just like the inanimate objects she torched with a flamethrower, the people Ema comes into contact with are left equally smouldering and scarred.

They're victims of Ema's single-minded quest to be reunited with her adopted son, Polo, a young native Venezuelan boy taken in by Ema, a talented dancer, and her choreographer husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal). Initially this might sound like the sort of noble endeavour a viewer can easily get behind, but we quickly realise that a reunion between Ema and Polo isn't in the best interests of anyone.

ema film review


Embodying the cliché of the intense, narcissistic artist, Ema and Gaston are far from model parents, and have already consciously given Polo up for adoption after he inherited his new mother's penchant for arson and set fire to the face of Ema's sister. Ema's decision to take back Polo seems inspired not by any genuine affection for the boy, but rather to prove wrong those who accuse her of being a bad mother.

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Ema's plan for a reunion is straight out of an early Barbara Stanwyck pre-code movie, those made in the era when bad girls were allowed to win in the end. As a dancer, she makes a living with her body, which now becomes as deadly a weapon as the flamethrower she wields like Robert Ginty in The Exterminator. Discovering Polo's new adoptive parents, Ema goes full Terence Stamp in Teorema, seducing both his new mother, Raquel (Paola Giannini), and father, Aníbal (Santiago Cabrera). The former is a lawyer whom Ema hires to help seal a divorce from Gaston, flushing out her concealed lesbian lust. The latter is a firefighter who arrives on the scene of one of Ema's bouts of arson. Both are unwittingly sucked into her web.

ema film review


As was so often the case in those old Stanwyck movies, Ema's sociopathic behaviour is initially motivated by a single-minded goal, but quickly becomes something she enjoys and embraces. Ema takes to the streets late at night, setting fire to objects for the sheer rush of pleasure it gives her. Similarly, her seduction of Raquel and Aníbal is as much pleasure as business. In one of the film's standout sequences, Larraín creates a montage of Ema making love/having transactional sex with a range of characters. All lit by the same pallid blue glow, the faces and bodies blur into one indistinguishable mass of writhing physical ecstasy.

Initially, when Ema is accused of behaving badly by those around her, we can see the resentment on her face, the tears she's holding back with her bravado. But over the course of the movie, that same stoic visage slowly breaks into a grimace as Ema accepts that she's a villain and embraces her "bad" label.

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Like many pre-code melodramas, Ema is filled with dance numbers. Whether as part of an elaborate stage performance, during rehearsals, while teaching children to express themselves with their bodies, or simply alone on a rooftop, it's clear that Ema is at her most comfortable while dancing. Occasionally we get full blown dance sequences, like the neon-lit number that opens the film or Ema dancing through the streets backed by the Manson family-esque entourage of tough female backing dancers who hang on her every word and support her every action, no matter how extreme. In this manner Ema is a companion piece to Larraín's 2008 breakout feature Tony Manero, in which a disturbed man commits murder amid imitating the disco moves of John Travolta.

ema film review


With Ema, Larraín continues the fractured, almost dreamlike style of storytelling he explored with Jackie. We're sometimes unsure if what we're watching is real or not, or at what point in the narrative it's taking place. As a protagonist, Ema similarly refuses to obey the rules of conventional storytelling, and from the off the film races to catch up with her, as though she was too impatient to wait for Larraín's starting pistol. Larraín drops us into some key scenes minutes past the point most filmmakers might begin them, and it's up to us to fill in the blanks. Such an approach will turn off less adventurous viewers, but it's a perfect way to capture the stress and strain of life in the periphery of someone as self-absorbed as Ema. Even Larraín's camera seems cautious of its subject, often slowly advancing towards Ema from a distance, like a family dog warily approaching a neighbour's cat.

Those who require female protagonists to be aspirational and morally impeachable will be ill-served by Larraín's film. But for those of us who can appreciate the thrill of watching a bad girl using her body and brains to pull off a deliciously destructive plan, Ema is a delight. 

Ema is screening for free on MUBI May 1st before an official release on May 2nd.




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