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Review: Pablo Larraín's "Ema" Is An Aggressive Slap Of Cinema, Meant To Put Some Color In Our Cheeks

By Jason Adams | Film | September 9, 2021 |

By Jason Adams | Film | September 9, 2021 |


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One of my favorite experiences, because of its relative rarity, is re-watching a movie I hated on a first viewing and suddenly not hating it anymore. Let me let y’all in on some classified intel—movie critics don’t like hating movies. I know, I know, we’ve got “critic” right there in our job title. But I love the movies, I only want good things for the movies, I have devoted my life to them and I’m always the beaming parent on the sideline only wishing them the best, whether it’s a blockbuster about the Moon crashing into the Earth or the latest Jane Campion Joint. Sure, like any maladjusted parent I can if need be make my own pleasure out of eviscerating something when it lets me down. But only because I had such high hopes, every single damn time, and I don’t like getting that beautiful football yanked out from in front of me. I wanna watch that thing rocket across the stadium, streamers and screams of joy alongside. There’s much finer pleasure in loving.

And so it went with Ema, the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, aka the man previously behind The Club, No, and Jackie—all ace pictures—and whose Princess Diana biopic Spencer starring Kristen Stewart is currently wowing critics as it makes the rounds at the fall film fests. Ema, which hits digital this week, got the teensiest tiniest theatrical release in the U.S. back in the winter of 2020 right before the pandemic shut everything down; I managed to see it then, and I did not like it, no I did not. Bigly disappointed, I was, finding its main character of Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) insufferable to the point of utter dismay. You never want your appreciation of a cinematic something to hinge on the characters-therein’s likability (an evil word, that), but there comes a point where a filmmaker’s fascination with a cascade of rotten traits in human form undoes a viewer; our ability to empathize, to simply care.

And on my first watch Ema the character and the film stomped past that place pretty quick, and then just kept going well past my will to keep up. When we first meet the dancer Ema and her dour haircut of a choreographer boyfriend Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) they’ve just given back the child they had adopted because of behavioral problems; little things like “he tried to set Ema’s sister on fire,” which isn’t otherwise met with much fuss. The film seems actively indifferent to abusive behavior; a throwaway line about Ema breastfeeding the seven-year-old further elbowed me from any place of commiseration. And every manipulation she takes from there seems designed to push us away—sometimes it just comes down to you just don’t want to be spend any time about these damn terrible people. And worse, when the movie itself doesn’t seem to get that.

Still the film, even as it alienated me on first view, was clearly beautiful to behold, both visually and sonically— Larrain’s oft cinematographer Sergio Armstrong is in electric top form here, and the thrumming score by Nicolas Jaar deserves particular credit; he’s an up-and-comer who also did the music on Dea Kulumbegashvili’s masterpiece Beginning last year (seek that movie out!) and he’s become one of my immediate favorites. The experience of watching Ema was awash in such frisson, a technically pleasurable feast that felt like it was built in particular to pick open old scabs and finger itself around into the fresh wounds it made.

So what changed with a second viewing? Who’s to say, as the film itself stayed the same but the world around it changed, and so did I—maybe all it took was reacquainting myself with something so formally daring, so exquisitely crafted, after the past sixteen months of pandemic-living? Maybe it reminded me of a time when I had the freedom to actually go to a theater and see movies that didn’t ask me to like them; of the person I was then, without all this fresh new trauma. Maybe its wounds seem quaint and as such appreciated for their quaintness in comparison—I’d rather be challenged for two hours by the small difficulties of fictional Ema than everything outside the four walls of these twenty-four frames per second.

But I do think Ema, the character and the film, speaks better now to the person I am—I don’t want to say post-pandemic since it’s ongoing, but the person I am now with the past year and a half of trauma ladled liberally on top. It’s a film about trauma, about the traumatized going through the pains of violently, seismically reshaping their trauma—the excruciating process, which leaves marks on everybody, of reforming the world; hoping against hopelessness that on the other side of such gory labor the ones still managing to stand can shed off their burned skins and shells and phoenix something pretty, something meaningful, across the twilight sky.

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Image sources (in order of posting): Music Box Films,