A couple deals with the aftermath of an adoption that goes awry as their household falls apart.

The latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain is an experimental drama that drops us into the middle of the broken relationship between Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal). Both are members of a dance troupe and have recently been forced to give up an adopted child called Polo, with this experience of adoption having a lasting and damaging effect on both characters. The approach of starting in the middle provides a framework for the story to develop in both a forward facing and backwards looking manner, covering the couple’s (Ema in particular) attempts to move on with their lives whilst also teasing out the details of what happened to have caused such a drastic impact to them. It’s incredibly stylized and the film is deeply immersive, but I did have several problems with how the narrative played out.

My simple critique is that I don’t think the storytelling approach works and I felt that withholding so much information about what led the characters to this point clouds our understanding of their experiences going forward and why they behave as they do. It’s an admirable approach to trust the audience to pick everything up but by the time I understood fully what was going on, the film was already a significant way through and it diminished the impact of Ema’s journey. Starting in the middle is not a completely alien concept and a film like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ used this approach to add a greater depth to his story, but that was a film centered wholly round a character unpacking a mystery at the same time as the audience, whereas in Ema, the characters know what has happened but it’s the audience that is left in the dark.

As mentioned, the film is stylistically impressive and I felt the dance scenes that blend in and out of the narrative segue well with the rest of the action. Mariana Di Girolamo is a striking presence, beautiful, talented and wounded, and she carries the film and brings a ferocious pain to her character that makes us invest in her journey, wherever it may end up. Gael Garcia Bernal is a phenomenal actor who for one reason or another hasn’t quite crossed that divide into being a major leading man, and he’s good again here in a primarily supporting role. ‘Ema’ is a thrilling ride, but it is definitely a film that recalls that oft-used phrase style over substance, although perhaps that may not have been the case with some slight tweaks to how this painful story is depicted.

Rating: 3/5

Directed By: Pablo Larrain

Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini and Cristian Suarez


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