Eye Candy Overdose: Our Review of ‘Ema’ on Mubi

Eye Candy Overdose: Our Review of ‘Ema’ on Mubi

“A feast for the senses” has to be one of the more overused film critic phrases of all time, but let’s do this anyway – Pablo Larraín’s Ema truly is a feast for the senses. Right from the opening images – a traffic light engulfed in flames over a quiet street, followed by an elaborate dance routine set in front of a blazing spherical backdrop (think the decaying sun of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine) – the film just about puts you in a trance. Dropping the deliberately low-tech visual grunginess of some of his earlier films, Larraín opts for his most opulent look yet, combined with an ethereal score by Nicolas Jaar (Dheepan), in traversing the heightened melodrama of a modern Chilean dancer.

Rocking dyed platinum blonde hair, slicked back like Sharon Stone, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) dances for an experimental troupe led by her choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal). Because of Gastón’s infertility, the couple had adopted seven-year old Polo, but a disastrous accident caused Child Protective Services to take the boy away. Now, living out the shame of that decision and with her marriage fast crumbling, Ema impulsively strikes out on her own, leaving the company with a group of likeminded dancers in tow and secretly plotting a way to reunite with her son.

Compared to his previous stark political work, Larraín keeps things pitched mostly at an operatic level here, using dance to express his characters’ feelings, particularly as Ema and her fellow dancers turn to reggaetón music and hit the streets. But as this de facto girl gang becomes more confrontational and Ema recklessly explores her sexual fluidity, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we don’t really know who any of these people are, let alone what emotions they’re trying to impart. The rebellion starts to feel childish, which could be the point. But there’s no weight behind it.

This nagging feeling persists the longer the film goes on, even as each painterly frame (courtesy of Larraín’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong) washes across the screen. Ema herself is a frustrating protagonist – while at first exuding a fiery energy, she is ultimately defined solely by her trauma of failed motherhood, making her actions seem increasingly contrived. As her supposed journey of self-discovery becomes more ludicrously erotic, on its way to an ending that flirts with absurdist comedy, Ema just slips even further away. Instead of a complex person, she’s a vague emotional caricature, oscillating between a surprisingly regressive mother-whore dichotomy and little else. Larraín has brought so much humanity to his characters in the past – whether it’s Jackie Kennedy or a psychotic Tony Manero impersonator – that it’s disappointing to see him somewhat fail Ema in this regard.

Yet it’s still impossible to take your eyes off this gorgeous urban fantasia, shot throughout the beautiful port city of Valparaíso. I only wish that Ema was as intoxicating a person as the atmosphere surrounding her.

Ema streams as a free virtual preview through Mubi on May 1, featuring an accompanying Q&A with Mariana Di Girolamo. Sign up through the link to get the screening invite.

  • Release Date: 5/1/2020
This post was written by
After his childhood dream of playing for the Mighty Ducks fell through, Mark turned his focus to the glitz and glamour of the movies. He's covered the extensive Toronto film scene for online outlets and is a filmmaker himself, currently putting the final touches on a low-budget (okay, no-budget) short film to be released in the near future. You can also find him behind the counter as product manager of Toronto's venerable film institution, Bay Street Video.
Comments are closed.
(function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i['GoogleAnalyticsObject']=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,'script','//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js','ga'); ga('create', 'UA-61364310-1', 'auto'); ga('send', 'pageview');