Ema Review

Following the short-lived adoption of a young boy which ended traumatically, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gaston (Gael García Bernal) come to a crossroads in their relationship. She’s a dancer, he’s a choreographer, and through the movement in their professional lives, their personal ones begin to unravel.

by Ella Kemp |
Published on
Release Date:

24 Apr 2020

Original Title:


There are dense, delicious layers of poetry and physical language to sink your teeth into in Pablo Larraín’s incendiary drama Ema (his first since Jackie), in which the limits of human desire are stretched and tested. The somewhat simple premise — a couple suffering through the aftermath of a loss — unravels with serious intensity, with gripping performances and a labyrinthian story that just keeps unfolding.

As the eponymous dancer at the epicentre of a microcosm of destruction, Mariana Di Girolamo is a magnetic presence. The relative newcomer leads proceedings with a subtle command of both body language and her delivery of the sharp dialogue. Larraín frames early arguments between Ema and Gael García Bernal’s Gaston (he’s the choreographer of her dance troupe) as direct addresses to the viewer, each hurting party putting their pain on our shoulders when the other can no longer carry it. Bernal is as enigmatic as ever, even as he is needy and neurotic — this is one of the actor’s most comical roles to date.

The seductive mood is sharply crafted both sonically and visually.

The story quickly spirals out of this one couple’s control, as notions of loyalty and ownership, of power and independence, become fluid. The guilt and resentment over the couple’s loss sows the seeds of a dangerously seductive story, turning grown adults into beings childlike and impulsive. Other lovers and relatives enter Ema’s orbit, prioritising an atmospheric world of desire and feeling over any one linear narrative. Larraín weaves a story that looks at the sexual dynamics of secretly polyamorous people, tainted by the tension surrounding the couple after they abandon adopted son Polo to an orphanage after a horrific incident involving his aunt.

The seductive mood is sharply crafted both sonically and visually. DJ and producer Nicolas Jaar spins a rousing electronic score that blurs synths and sirens, reggaeton beats and piercing vocals. Music courses through the film, underscoring the choreography but also accentuating moments of quiet — ones probably lived in silence, now incandescent for the viewer imagining what emotions could be running through these characters’ minds.

DP Sergio Armstrong lenses the film in extreme colours, incorporating the pink and green lamps of nighttime streets, and some shots fully ablaze with orange due to pyromaniac outbreaks at night. It never veers into anything garish or unbelievable, though, Larraín operating in taut, powerful displays of restraint. If vibrant clothing is worn, the rest of the frame is muted. In one scene, burning traffic light crackles against a dark sky.

Piercing stares full of longing and lacking punctuate the film, a vividly human portrait that explores the limits of physical expression. Fear and pleasure, birth and disposal, freedom and responsibility — the obsessions of a relationship powered and chained by love are examined in dizzying detail in a masterful exploration of complicated emotions.

Following Jackie, Pablo Larraín offers another powerful examination of grief, capturing all of the confusing and fascinating layers of human relationships. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s intoxicating.
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