It’s been a good couple of years if you’re into foreign arthouse horror dance movies with disturbing psychosexual undertones. Gaspar Noé’s hellish techno trip Climax kicked things off in 2018 – the same year Luca Guadagnino mixed headless witches with Thom Yorke krautrock in Suspiria – and now we have Pablo Larraín’s take on cinema’s oddest sub-genre. Part visceral social drama, part erotic reggaeton musical, Larraín takes a flamethrower to any expectations.
Weirdly, the image of Ema (Chilean TV actor Mariana Di Girolamo) spewing jets of liquid fire from a napalm gun is only one of the scenes that lingers after you’ve spent time with Larraín’s uncomfortably beautiful nightmare – a film visually overstuffed with fluorescent lesbian orgies, frozen dog heads and backlit crowd choreography that somehow still manages to pack the biggest punches in its quieter moments.
We meet Ema twerking in front of a giant red sun on a video screen – some kind of avant-garde installation art that frames the whole film, and a way of introducing the girl gang of Latin hip-hop dancers that passes through the story whenever Larraín feels like accenting something awful with a dreamy musical number. Ema is part of the dance company, but she’s also married to the choreographer, Gastón (Gael García Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries).
Only kept together by their work, Ema and Gastón are completely falling apart at home. Desperate for a family, the pair previously adopted a child together and then sent him back when his behaviour got out of hand (to be fair, he did set someone’s face on fire). Yet what starts off as a bittersweet family tragedy quickly descends into madness as the real backstory unfolds – with Gastón and Ema both blaming each other for messing up the kid with their own sexual obsessions.
In truth, they’re both to blame. Bernal seems to relish dragging the neediness out of Gastón and Di Girolamo makes an unforgettable feature debut as Ema – a blonde-haired punk who dances and shags her way through all her issues until they feel like someone else’s problem – but they both come into their own when they start arguing. As heightened and unreal as the film sometimes gets, it’s Guillermo Calderón’s script that heats things up far quicker than Ema’s flamethrower is able to, featuring some truly vicious insults. Push past all the dancing, burning and slow-mo scissoring and you find a compelling (if slightly nasty) relationship movie – a brutally honest film about two awful people who end up together for all the wrong reasons.
Larraín has spent his whole career edging Chilean cinema out of its comfort zone, from arthouse heavy-hitters like Post Mortem and The Club to unconventional biopics like Neruda and Jackie – but Ema falls slightly short of his best work by trying a bit too hard to dazzle and shock. Between DJ Nicolas Jaar’s pulsing synth score and Sergio Armstrong’s neon cinematography it’s all too easy to get lost in the poetry whilst the real heart of the film unravels. Some ideas work better than others, and it’s definitely not an easy watch, but Ema has a way of getting under your skin in all the best and worst ways.
- Director: Pablo Larraín
- Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera
- Release date: May 1 (Mubi)
A free virtual preview of ‘Ema’ is available to watch on Mubi for 24 hours on May 1. After that, the film will only be available to Mubi subscribers