- Katherine McLaughlin
- 11 October 2019
LFF 2019: Pablo Larraín returns with a daring drama focusing on a thoroughly modern woman
'I'm going to horrify you,' says Ema (an impressive Mariana Di Girolamo) seductively to a fireman in Pablo Larraín's blazingly ambitious, high-wire tense drama, written by Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno. It follows a Chilean couple who split apart after the removal of their adopted Columbian son. Ema really pays off on her threat in a scheme to burn it all down and start over again.
From the very start, there is no question of who is going around town setting fire to the establishment. Bleached blonde Ema is introduced proudly with a flamethrower in her hand; she marches to her own twisted beat against striking backdrops of twinkling city lights and seascapes. She's joined by a loyal female cohort of dancers, who move in unison with an animalistic and athletic prowess. Whether they're cutting hair in a glitzy beauty salon or unashamedly enjoying raging orgies, they are tight-knit group.
Gael García Bernal plays Ema's estranged husband Gaston, who is also the choreographer of her dance troupe. The couple's confrontations play out as a series of highly-charged and nasty exchanges as they demean one another's value as sexual beings, parents and dancers. Ema's wounding remarks are matched by Gaston's disgust at her empowerment.
Larraín cultivates an explosive and bewildering atmosphere, aided by an intense performance from Di Girolamo in the gleefully perverse lead role, and by creative choreography from Jose Luís Vidal. Nicolas Jaar's penetrating score, meanwhile, is menacing and enticing, whipping up an otherworldly Philip Glass-infused sound with sexy steel drums. Sergio Armstrong's cinematography glows with a hypnotic force as images of swaying figures dance in front of a projected flaming orb, or Ema plays with hoses and phallic objects that squirt out substances that she at one point hilariously describes as 'male dinosaur cum'.
Ema's the kind of mysterious, multi-faceted female character that cinema has been crying out for, a thoroughly modern woman hell-bent on achieving her own personal vision of freedom. She uses her body as she pleases, with the film's themes of sex and power cannily substituting the stereotypical sad and barren woman trope for male infertility. Though the denouement unwisely attempts to neatly make sense of Ema's wild behaviour, the trip Larraín takes the viewer on is undoubtedly a thrilling one.
Screening on Fri 11 and Sat 12 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.