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The first film I saw of Pablo Larraín’s was 2008’s Tony Manero, which was about a man whose passion in life was posing as John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, out of Saturday Night Fever.

Larraín’s interest in people pretending to be something they’re not continues in Ema, which also happens to be a film pretending to be something it’s not. Even without the late gotcha moment when both Ema and the film are upended, what we have here is a mix of character study, formal experiment and genre pastiche, served up in two separate visual flavours by DP Sergio Armstrong, his usual gauzy, alienated lighting style punctuated by moments of boiling vital colour. On every level, something is afoot.

Plots usually hold films together but Larraín isn’t interested in that, or doesn’t seem to be at first. He introduces us to Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo), a dancer in a reggaeton troupe run by choreographer Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal), with whom she’s also having a relationship. Had a relationship. It’s falling apart, ever since Ema gave their adopted child back to social services after he set fire to the house.

Larraín spends a lot of time establishing the facts of the adopted Polo case, in scenes with a social worker, Ema’s friends and family but most of all between her and Gastón, lockshot to-and-fros in which each brutally accuses the other of some failure in parenting.

Ema and Gaston betwen arguments
Between arguments: Ema and Gaston

On this firm basis the rest of the film sits, not so much a narrative as a succession of snapshots of no-bullshit Ema careening through life – she is, in effect the New Wave existential hero, a loner, an iconoclast, a libertine and a litmus test for phoniness.

In scenes that are more like stabs, Ema dances, she fucks, she hangs with her friends, she sets fire to things, eventually fucking the fireman who’s come to extinguish a car she’s torched (with napalm, very impressive), she sues for divorce, she fucks the lawyer handling that, and in one heady montage making clear that we fully understand what Ema is about Larraín cuts together sexual encounters between Ema and five or six various partners (don’t well all lose count after about four?).

This is the story of the young woman as free agent. When a headteacher interviewing her for a dance-teacher job asks her what she teaches, Ema declares “Freedom!”

Without going too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that what you see is not necessarily what you get. This is a Larraín movie – remember El Club, in which all those kindly, animal-loving priests were in fact all disgraced one way or another, and a nun ran their lives with an iron hand? Here, Larraín delivers two highly consequential dramatic twists towards the end – one involving the abandoned Polo – and it’s as if one of those New Wave French films full of pregnant pauses had suddenly been ram-raided by a Brazilian soap opera.

While it’s fascinating to watch Ema, collar up, slouching along like Belmondo, emotional engagement isn’t uppermost in Larraín’s mind, and this film doesn’t deliver massively on that level. Though Girólamo brings Ema to life there’s only so far she can go. This is a character study that isn’t, featuring an existential hero who isn’t, delivered as a mood piece which turns out, in the end, to be all about the plot. Probably worth watching twice.

Ema – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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