When Daft Punk split, Hua Hsu eulogized: The robots’ early tracks “sounded like you were arriving somewhere — you were greeted by the sound of a chattering crowd and traffic, people were already there on the scene.” The act welcomed you, gates open, party thumping. “Ema,” writer-director Pablo Larraín’s latest (he shares writing credits with Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno), is similarly a world in motion, and Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) and the dance troupe she leads are already bobbing and jiggling on the scene.
Similar to Daft Punk, “Ema” is intriguing and occasionally difficult, but it’s never welcoming. The titular character certainly isn’t — she speaks acerbically and, in her spare time, torches whatever the Chilean city of Valparaíso has on the menu. Her erraticism is largely a byproduct of grief: She mourns Polo (Cristián Suárez), the child she adopted, then sent back 10 months later, as if he were dead. (Her pyromania seems to have rubbed off on Polo, who, prior to the film’s events, sets fire to their house and his aunt’s face.)
The film is a smattering of obfuscation, power plays and drama (with a score by Nicolás Jaar, to boot) as Ema schemes to be reunited with Polo. Larraín’s film circles a group full of gossip and resentment, histories and loyalties sparked by Polo.
The girls back Ema; the irrelevant guys back Gastón (silver fox Gael García Bernal), her husband 12 years her senior and the troupe’s choreographer. We don’t know any better at first, but the tea boils over in no time — and it’s a hell of a lot of fun, especially when things get burned.
You can, however, feel Larraín’s gaze, if not in the many clips of bare breasts, then in the way he structures the girls’ dynamics in the dance troupe. The female characters are framed just a little flatly: The girls are catty — because they rove in a pack — and moody. A feminist script doesn’t demand a woman to pen it, but Larraín is mired in incomplete, if thrilling, imagination.
The girls who follow Ema are acolytes of an idea more so than a single leader, and for that reason they start to feel like a loose cannon, ready to blow at any second — if they would only awaken and understand how to seize the reins of anarchy from an anarchist orchestrating order. Their rawness matches Ema’s incendiary spirit, and Gastón always has fear nestled deep in his eye. “Avoid explosions,” Gastón seems to think when he argues with Ema. She calls him “an infertile pig” and a “human condom.” He snaps and recalls some of Polo’s last words to her. “Don’t leave me, Mommy.” Boom.
Larraín has a soft spot for Ema’s mode of manipulation. Di Girólamo plays her like a spy, a free-wheeling, less uptight version of Keri Russell’s performance in “The Americans.” But once you realize exactly what Ema is after, the ploy unravels. The grand reveal comes at the end, and with it Larraín and his writers pull abandon all their slick moves, the script unfolding slyly with cinematographer Sergio Armstrong’s finely tuned and engaged camera. Ema’s tricks, once thought to be innovative and subversive, are revealed as dumbed-down and conventional.
The real loss is Ema’s. The film starts with a scene of a stoplight on fire. The fire descends down through each bulb, but the lights around it turn red. Stop. Wait. The camera pulls back until Ema is in the frame, flamethrower in hand. And now that she’s here, the light turns green. We’re off, and the ride is wild, sexy and queer, but always hers.
But when it seems like Ema’s gotten everything she wants, her skeleton — that swaying spinal cord, that anarchic brain and that thumping heart — is violently ripped out of the film’s form. The ending matches the film’s heaps of perversion, but its direction, while smart, is Larraín speaking, not Ema. This twisted coffin still needs one final nail.