Pablo Larraín’s Ema creeps up on us gradually, with short, vaguely ominous footsteps. The title character (played by Chilean TV actor Mariana Di Girólamo) busily rehearses reggaeton dance numbers with an ensemble and conducts a movement class with kids, but seems preoccupied. Her mind keeps drifting into flashbacks about a boy named Polo, the kid Ema and her dance-director husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) once adopted.
It’s brought out in dialogue that they adopted young Polo—whom we meet later in the film—when he was alone and homeless, but that they recently sent him back to Child Protective Services after a couple of disturbing incidents. That is, they took in an orphan, but dumped him when he became too bothersome to handle. What a charming couple.
The characters exhibit further restlessness. As Ema and Gastón bicker over who should take the blame for their abandonment of Polo—the subject of Gastón’s implied impotence comes up—it’s established that someone— who? Polo, maybe—has been starting fires in public places. Also, a dead cat was discovered frozen in a refrigerator. There’s a strong hint of criminality in all this.
It’s at this point that we pause in our leisurely observation of these attractive/repulsive creative types from the picturesque city of Valparaiso, and ask ourselves what the hell is going on. Ema—as presented in the screenplay by Director Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno—doesn’t operate like an ordinary, well-intentioned “troubled youngster” story. No one seems to be in charge. Who’s the grownup in this family?
This risky drama doesn’t bother showing how two self-absorbed artistes came to the decision to care for an unwanted child in the first place, only the messy aftermath. And when the emotions become too frothy, the film cuts away to another dance sequence. And another. The question of “Are these people really ready to become parents?” is left behind, and the subject quickly switches to: Who is Ema, and what’s going on with her? We’re intensely curious about this woman; her platinum blonde coif, her icy demeanor, her short attention span, her tendency to use other people like Kleenex while at the same time claiming to desire a loving family life. But Larraín at first shows us only slivers. Nasty, menacing little slivers.
We recognize a few similar character traits out of Larraín’s filmography: the haughty loneliness of Natalie Portman’s Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie; the defiance of dilettante-turned-revolutionary-poet Pablo in Neruda; the stubborn indomitability of the middle-aged protagonist in Gloria—produced by Larraín, with Sebastián Lelio directing. When not in the company of her sinister girlfriends—a creepier alternative to Margot Robbie’s comic-book cadre in the Harley Quinn flicks—Di Girólamo’s Ema is most often shown by herself, alone, inwardly occupied. She is a child herself, an unhappy one. “There’s a problem,” Ema announces. “I’m evil.” Larraín is fascinated by her, and so are we, to a degree.
As the flaccid half of the putative nuclear family, García Bernal’s Gastón has the lucky opportunity to portray a confirmed loser. Every time he opens his mouth to demean his wife’s concepts or dismiss her devotion to reggaeton—“Prison music,” he sneers. “It’s falling asleep in defeat”—he fades further into the background. It’s not often we get to see this actor as a chump. Ema’s girl-gang aside, the rest of the supporting cast lines up as bowling pins ready to be toppled, à la Ema’s easily convinced mother (Paola Giannini), the sexual-plaything firefighter (Santiago Cabrera) and Marcela, the loudest dissenting voice to Ema’s rebellion—“The system is made to cut people like you out. Fix your rotten heads before adopting children!”—played by Catalina Saavedra.
What chance do any of them have against Ema the fire thrower, Ema the human incinerator, Ema the insane crocodile who devours her young, Ema the man-eater, Ema the woman-fucking tiger, Ema the mother? Ema is modern mythology.