Sundance 2020: “Ema” Is a Hallucinatory, Familial Fever Dream

Ema Courtesy: Sundance Institute

Pablo Larraín’s neon-caked tale of a tattered family is ambitious if uneven eye candy that’s bound to get audiences talking.

In one of the more fitting opening shots in a while, Ema opens with a traffic light on fire. Behind it stands the title character (Mariana Di Girolamo) with a flamethrower slung over her shoulder and, despite what might sound glib on paper, it’s an apt metaphor for what’s to come. No stopping, no slowing down. If it’s going to go, it’s going to go. Pablo Larraín has dealt with political upheaval and reconstructing at the ruins of one’s personal life before, and now he’s doing all of it at once.

In fact, it feels as if parts of his eighth film are to be remembered by viewers as a hallucination. There is, after all, no way some of this stuff actually happened like this, right? The dancing and domestic drama, sure. The spousal sparring, definitely. But the orgies and scorched earth? How about the day-glo visuals that would make for one hell of a rewatch during a fever? It isn’t all “there” throughout. Yet, it manages to present, annihilate, and reconstruct a multitude of fantasies, be they social or political, sexual or familial.

After that prologue comes something tangible in comparison. Ema’s husband and leader of her dance company, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), has accidentally set their house on fire. The most pressing collateral damage comes through their adopted son, Polo (Cristián Suárez). He isn’t the most amiable kid, to say the least, and now they’ve got to return him to the agency he came from. Alas, Ema nor Gastón will take full responsibility for his behavior. On second thought, maybe that stoplight was a little more approachable after all.

At least Larraín gives us some hypnosis to make it go down easier, not least of which are elaborate, LCD-backed dances from Ema and dozens of others. Like a Red Shoes regurgitation by M83, the takes are long, sometimes almost imperceptible in the camera movements. Ema is certainly a showy movie, but it isn’t the type of project that flips on the neon and flips the camera.

There’s a smart use of lenses and focus instead. He and his regular DP, Sergio Armstrong, go light on the anthropomorphic lens to lend an uncanny sense of gravity to the center of the frame. (It’s best used for close-ups, giving something of a dissociative effect to the mise-en-scène.) That said, their eye drifts towards characters elsewhere, taking in the surroundings or exorcising them when fit.

Those on its wavelength will get something. How much remains to be seen, but Larraín is giving them a lot. It’s hard to fault him for it.

This, along with a wholly unapologetic Di Girolamo in every scene, gives something to root for. Suffice it to say the bickering can get nasty and the content isn’t the most accessible, and Gastón’s most chauvinistic streaks make for some moments as brash as they are necessary. Larraín and co-writers Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno end with a resolution less daring than it ought to be. Some scenes, similarly, go on for too long. It somehow manages to feel longer than 102 minutes, but that isn’t to say it stretches itself thin.

But, knowing where it counts most, the writers inject a punk rock energy into almost every scene leading up to it. Sure, it flows like a song and some will dismiss it as noise. Those on its wavelength won’t see a middle finger, though. Those on its wavelength will get something. How much remains to be seen, but Larraín is throwing a lot at them. It’s hard to fault him for it.

Ema is screening in the Spotlight section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is to be released by Music Box Films.

Ema Trailer:

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