Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is a young dancer with a Daenerys Targaryen bleach job and a love of Reggaeton. She’s also a bit of a pyromaniac. The first shot we see in Pablo Larraín’s new film Ema is of a stoplight burning, set on fire by Ema with her flamethrower.
The image is a searing warning for the film that is to come: something anarchic, a bit of vandalism, full of punkish energy, but ultimately exhausting and chronically unreal. In the port city of Valparaiso, Ema and her husband choreographer Gaston (Gael García Bernal) had adopted a child, but Polo (Cristián Suárez) – who we won’t see for much of the film – turned out to be We Need to Talk About Kevin problematic – setting fire to his aunt’s face and putting the cat in the freezer.
Apparently regretting the move, Ema sets off on a mission to claim him back from the new foster family who might be in the process of adopting him. None of this is as clear as this. The story is told in an impressionistic, achronological visually stunning way and although there are emotional confrontations all delivered straight to camera, the grand gesture is the most obvious form of communication. Ema isn’t the only one firing off flamethrowers and firehoses – Larraín seems to be painting with them.
Then there’s the music and the dance, which falls somewhere between the opening of Climax and an arthouse entry into the Step Up franchise. Gaston hates the Reggaeton that Ema loves and in the midst of recriminations about the death of their own relationship, there’s also an argument about art and the street. And what streets! Sergio Armstrong’s camera captures the unusual beauty of Valparaiso, the steep sidewalks, football pitches, the fairgrounds and the funiculars. You can taste the sea air and rust.
There’s so much to enjoy in Ema that it comes as a surprise that there’s so little there. This becomes more evident when (surprise, surprise) it turns out there was some sort of plot going on, hidden from view. Larraín has made a career of showing how fantasy can bleed into the harshest of realities and the other way around: from Tony Manero’s toxic love of Saturday Night Fever to the fantasy of crashing to the ground to the sound of an assassin’s rifle shot in Jackie. With Ema, however, the reality feels so unreal that the fantasy has nowhere to go.
Ema herself as a character has an enigmatic blankness that looks an awful lot like being blank. It’s not even particularly clear she’s a good dancer. There are lots of things to love in the flashier delights and it isn’t Paolo Sorrentino in its shallowness by any means, but it does feel like a dip in form, almost a holiday, with the same kind of summery carelessness. Let’s hope Larraín returns refreshed and ready to work.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty