By Clara Miranda Scherffig

In his first film set in contemporary Chile, Pablo Larraìn relays a story of wicked energy within a system that doesn’t recognize itself as such anymore. In contrast with the director’s previous films, Chilean society in Ema is not a character per se, but a platform upon which one can exercise a new, liberating power. The film revolves around a couple—choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) and his lead dancer Ema (Marina Di Girolamo)—who are coping with a recent tragedy. After a violent incident provoked by Polo, their adopted  6-year-old child, they return him to social services. How can one twice orphan a child? How do you recreate family harmony with a lack of family?

Ema sets about this quest with an individualistic drive that is devoid of any moral judgement and triggered only by love. Whether it is motherly, friendly, or sexual, her desire primarily finds expression through dance, as her and her dancing troupe travel across Valparaíso. Public space offers a performance space for a new generation of bodies: they blend in majestic foyers and institutional halls, schools, hallways, and entryways tainted with minty and grey palettes; they climb up the city on trams, cable cars, rooftop parking lots, soccer fields, harbours. There is no ascension here, nothing metaphysical, only the very mundane expansion of reggaeton music.

In one revealing dialogue, Gastón delivers a furious philippic against this music style: “It’s like fisting, going to live on Ibiza, taking fucking selfies!” In spite of his youthful, experimental art, this sounds like an old man’s reactionary cry. While we find ourselves giggling from the precision of his criticism—which, one suspects, might have also been Larraìn’s before making this film—we are also struck by the vitality and lure of reggaeton’s aimless arrogance. Eventually it will be Ema’s choreographed actions that reform this “multi-dysfunctional” family. Her big plan works out at the end. Few see it coming, nobody objects to it. There is a recurring image of Ema that is at once appalling and arousing. She clearly has a thing for ejaculating objects, and we see her shooting water hoses and flare guns against a dark coastline, blinking with lights, as if to inseminate the city spreading before her. Like her new relatives, we observe with awed, questioning eyes.

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