Movie Review: A tragedy, a child “abandoned,” a dancer — “Ema”

“Ema,” the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is about interpretative modern dance, so naturally it’s “open to interpretation.”

The director of “Jackie” and “Neruda” has conjured up a fever dream of tragedy, the “monster” who feels responsible for it, egos and fire. And if I can’t say it comes off in any simple, fulfilling way, it’s quite the lovely, sexy show and leaves you with a lot to chew on.

Chilean actress Mariana Di Girólamo turns dancer for this film, the bleached blonde gamine at the center of a company run by her choreographer husband, Gaston (Gael García Bernal). And when we meet them, they’re coming apart.

They had a child, a boy. But Ema, twelve years his junior, flatly notes that “You’ll never give me a son, a real one,” (in Spanish with English subtitles). And Gaston’s response to this cruelest of accusations about their briefly-adopted boy Polo, gets at the nature of their rift.

“I gave you a son, a REAL one. And you threw him away.”

This self-described “bad mother” turned their child back over to family services after an act of violence, a fire. The victim was her sister, and it’s just like this movie to ignore discussing “motivations” for the boy or any sense that he was responsible for awful this thing he did.

It’s just “He’s sick” and “Polo’s parents don’t love him any more” and the dance that Gaston choreographed, inspired by this gutting set of circumstances.

The company performs it despite “hating” Ema, she is convinced. “I’m evil.” Plenty of others chime in on her rash act. A social worker who screams “f—–g psycho” might be on the money.

And with her marriage ending, she does what characters do in movies about the gaping hole guilt leaves in their hearts. She has sex with anything on two legs — female or male, her lawyer or a virile firefighter, fellow dancers, whoever. She accepts the blame, but her self-punishment involves acting out, orgasming her way to a solution to this empty, guilty space in her heart.

That’s “punishment,” “atonement?” Hey, I said “open to interpretation.”

She toys with a flame thrower as part of this interpretive dance, but only loses herself when she and her corps are cutting loose to reggaeton, which is sexy and well within our star’s dancing skill set even if her soon-to-be-ex dismisses it as “prison music.”

The big emotional moments in this come from supporting characters, as our leads are emotionally-stunted (her) or shocked and dismayed (him).

The film has no conventional heroine/hero whom we can “root for,” as even the boy — barely glimpsed until the third act — plainly needs “help” and not unconditional forgiveness (we see the victim’s burns).

The dance is pulsating and fun, well-staged and beautifully shot. The sex is dancer-athletic, titillating and mostly packaged in a montage sure to be a widely-shared Reddit clip any day now.

But the whole is rather an empty experience, something I confess it shares with other Larraín films. “Ema” is pretty, provocative and surprising in ways that are more interesting to chew on than satisfying to experience.

MPA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and language

Cast: Mariana Di Girólamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Giannina Fruttero and
Paola Giannini

Credits: Directed by Pablo Larraín script by Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín and Alejandro Moreno. A Music Box release.

Running time: 1:47

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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