Ema opens in the idyllic stillness of morning, yet rather quickly it’s broken by the sight of a traffic light that’s been set aflame. Nearby, a woman stands stoically while holding a flamethrower, staring at a bleary stretch of cityscape in Santiago as the sun begins to rise. For the titular Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo), she makes quite a first impression: With her bleached-blonde, slicked-back hair, she projects a punkish antisocialness, with Di Girólamo delivering a radiantly inscrutable screen presence and a stare that cuts right through you. A dancer by trade, she regularly rehearses in lofts with a troupe of friends or twirls around town to the confusion and discomfort of others. You’ll spend most of the film trying to figure out what she wants and who she is, none of which Ema herself nor writer-director Pablo Larraín make particularly easy.
Ema’s personality matches her image. Her conversational style is acidic, particularly with her estranged choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), with whom she’s always cooking up a feast of insults. Both relentlessly taunt the other, Ema over his infertility, Gastón over her splintering mental health. Both take other sexual partners and flaunt their infidelities to each other, and much of the film puts Ema’s brutal, loud confrontations against Gastón’s cold passive-aggressiveness, and the other only thing more unsettling about their caustic romance is how much mutual cruelty still tethers the two together. The source of their tension is soon made clear: Wanting children, they adopted a boy, Polo (Cristián Suárez), whose behavior — setting fire to their home, stuffing a cat in a freezer — forced them to give him up. This rejection reverberates through Larraín’s film, like the aftershocks of a colossal earthquake, not merely unbalancing the couple but turning others against them. The teachers at the school where Ema works during the day — and where Polo attended classes — openly express their revulsion in a staff meeting about what to tell Polo’s classmates. Elsewhere, Ema’s friends in her dance troupe air their hostile feelings toward Gastón for how much of the responsibility for Polo’s abandonment he keeps putting onto her.
Bernal, restrained in both his words and how he holds his body, imbues Gastón with a domineeringness that points to the man’s attempts to mask his guilt behind a stone face. Di Girólamo, meanwhile, is all movement. Even in close-up, the actress captures the perpetual jitteriness of her character’s being. For Ema, dancing becomes an outlet for her contradictory feelings of defiance and grief. The film’s music, both diegetic and non, comes from electronic composer Nicolas Jaar, whose soundtrack combines ambient passages with frantic footwork — a sound that juts in and out of rhythm, being both rough and warm. The music overall perfectly fits Ema’s own underground style of dance, a manifestation of a human uncontrollably eating herself from the inside out.
And it’s in that sense, where Ema marks a fascinating inversion of Larraín’s previous film, Jackie, which concerned the pressures of having to filter one’s all-too-real grief through performative displays of civility. Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy, shell-shocked and robbed of her husband, lets the demands of office, even one as ceremonial and condescending as that of the first lady, dictate her behavior even in private. But Ema‘s focus is on how mourning is expunged through chaos of words and flailing limbs, a movement that embodies a boundless sense of sexual wanderlust. As much as Ema and Gastón bicker, one is left to wonder just how much worse things would be for them if they didn’t act out against each other. Perhaps their guilt would fester and their mutual bickering would boil over and erupt.
As a filmmaker, Larraín is potently concerned with image, and with the faces we show to the world versus the ones we keep to ourselves. And even as a strong visualist, his vibrant and intoxicatingly strange jumble of a film could’ve all too easily passed judgment on its protagonists, whether over their reflexive rejection of parenthood in the face of its hardships, their combative relationship, or their sexual promiscuity, but Larraín is too interested in the ambiguity of the characters’ physical expressions of their inner selves to condemn anyone. Indeed, a final act in which both Ema and Gastón lose themselves in sexual escapades is remarkable for how it avoids the usual depictions of hedonism as a sign of madness and loss of self, instead presenting their experimentation as a cathartic reassertion of identity. In Ema, the literal union of bodies is the only logical means of sustaining emotional ties. And like really any of the great movies, Ema leaves you wondering what exactly you just saw, and hoping it won’t be too long before you see it again. Part visceral domestic drama, part freeform dance-filled fever dream, Ema is as invigoratingly liberating, hypnotically cryptic and electrifyingly sensual a movie I’ve seen this year.
Ema is currently playing in Select Theaters, as of August 13