A far cry from it’s Regency namesake, Pablo Larrain’s (Jackie, No) Ema is a dark, freewheeling, and often anxiety-inducing erotic drama that follows the nebulous efforts of the title character to reassert control over her life after her foster child is taken back into care.
The opening movement as we piece together what has happened recalls Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. There’s an unsettling aura of paranoia and judgement all around, as Ema reads accusation in every silent glance, what kind of mother gives back a child after a matter of weeks? However, as the film begins to show its cards, its latter half takes on a shamanic sexual ecstasy akin to Gaspar Noe‘s Climax, as Ema spins her web of infidelity, arson and reggaeton around the hapless bystanders to her maternal angst. The defining theme of the movie is sex, or as one scene makes explicit, the allure of the untrammeled emotional potential of sex. This is emotional porn with the Machiavellian motives of the characters acting as all sorts of erotic fetish-triggers.
Ema is a dancer, married to the choreographer of her dance troupe (Gael Garcia Bernal), and has a tight-knit posse of fellow dancers, confidantes and casual lovers, all of whom happily join in as pliant minions/enablers as she vents her napalm-fueled frustrations on the bourgeois street life around her. The atmosphere created by the visceral corporeality of these scenes and the industrial-reggaeton musical score make an intoxicating, unbecoming lure into Ema’s Satyr-like devil-may-care pansexuality.
It’s not a terribly focused or story-driven film. There is a plot; Ema has a plan to take back control of her life that unspools as she enacts it, but many scenes have more of a non-sequitur feel, with uneven scenes that progress the plot playing out more like snapshots taken out of context. The real engine driving the movie is the dynamic, exciting sexuality of the many dance and seduction scenes.
As a character study, Ema makes a fascinatingly remote figure. She’s unhappy and angry certainly, yet she has a determined command of herself such that she never seems lost or uncontrolled, and she never budges an inch. She is leading everyone around her in a teasing dance of which they have no knowledge but to which their bodies innately know all the steps. Mariana Di Girolamo’s central performance is devilishly sexy, at all times like someone who is holding back nothing but her true intentions.
Ema isn’t a particularly political movie, yet what meaning I find in it is a subversive, flawed horror-show of Machiavellian sexual control. It’s all desire, a hedonistic, shamelessly titillating yet destructively empowering fantasy of jealousy and emotional manipulation. It’s so easy to judge Ema, but so hard to deny her allure.