At the center of Pablo Larraín's enigmatic film is Ema, the titular character. She is a fiercely alive and layered character, easily one of the most well-realized of the year. The film dances to its own music, one that isn't instantly recognizable. In fact, the first act of the film is difficult but I urge you to stick with this one. Once you get on the film's wavelength, there is so much here to ponder and gasp at. Opening with a stunning image of its lead character walking around the city with a flamethrower, Ema is one of the most original films of the year.
Ema is a Reggaeton dancer in her late twenties. That initial image of her with a flamethrower is more telling than we initially realize. Perhaps this is because Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema is striking in so many ways. With her bleached-blonde hair greased back and fierce hunger in her eyes, Girolamo gives a breakthrough performance that could define her career. Underneath that intense exterior, Ema isn't quite as free as she preaches. The details aren't clear initially. Her adopted son is no longer in her custody. A social worker illuminates that she was not a great mother and her son may be gone because she gave him away after a series of behavioral outbursts. One of those involved Ema's sister having her face burned. Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is her husband and choreographer with whom she regularly fights. In these early moments of the film, the editing refuses to find a rhythm, forcing us into Ema's headspace to make sense out of the details being given.
The source of their fighting, and boy do they say some hurtful things, is Polo, their adopted son. It becomes clear that they gave him back after a series of horrible instanced. Ema still feels the need to be a mother and wants him back. As the film moves along, we come to understand that we are seeing her plan to get him back. That is about as clear as Larraín lets the plot get. Ema is more about someone following their own beat. Ema isn't a sad character even if her situation is. She is a rebel yell of sex and rage who refuses to be anything less than her full self. Who she is, however, doesn't always lead her to the things she wants.
The ambient score by Nicolas Jaar adds so much texture and otherworldliness to the feel of the film. Sergio Armstrong's camerawork is lush and seductive but also allows very little to be hidden. Characters speak directly to the camera at times. Rarely is anything in the frame obscured. The film is peppered with dance sequences that show off the power of music and image. The way Ema moves is as important to the story as anything else.
Ema is a fierce, undiluted character that many will find offputting. She is a character who wants to make the world fit her and Di Girolamo's performance is utterly convincing. She will seduce everyone around her. Men, in particular, have to meet her on her terms. She will get what she wants at any cost. The film rolls from unpredictable scene to another until it hits a bonkers ending that works only because we have understood along the way that Ema is like no one else. This is a fascinating character study that doesn't fully come into focus until after the film has ended. For those who like a film that stays with you, look no further.