Ema review – hypnotic psychosexual drama from Chile

Mariana Di Girolamo gives a mesmerising performance in Pablo Larraín's weird and enigmatic story of an adoption gone wrong

The films of Chilean director Pablo Larraín often find their stories in aftermaths. In haunting drama The Club, a priest was exiled to a remote town to think on his crimes, whilst biopic Jackie focused on the fallout of the Kennedy assassination through the eyes of the First Lady. His latest, the strange and hypnotic dance-drama Ema, follows suit: it's about a woman dealing with the repercussions of a mistake, though ultimately refusing to live by anyone's rules but her own. “I do what I want,” Ema intones. Jackie Onassis she is not.

Ema is a talented dancer and dance teacher played with dazzling, star-making confidence by Mariana Di Girolamo, whose relationship with husband Gastón, a choreographer and difficult artist type (Gael García Bernal), is falling apart at the seams. Through a series of spiteful conversations we learn that something awful has happened with their adopted son, Polo, who the couple have since abandoned. It turns out Polo, disturbed or perhaps mentally ill, set fire to Ema's sister's hair, permanently disfiguring her. And there are suggestions that the relationship between Ema and her adopted child is not quite right – sexual, even.

This is a film of pure hypnotic force, a tapestry of relentless visual and aural stimulation. There are streaks of black comedy, and also moments where Ema seems to be moving into horror but swerves just in time to avoid the comparison. When Ema and her dance company perform in front of a giant, sun-like orb, the film even takes on a mild sci-fi quality. But this sun could easily represent an egg, the dancers as sperm, the dance itself one of welcomed fertility. And indeed it is Ema's quest to find child-based fulfilment that floods the half-narrative. The decision to put Polo up for re-adoption haunts her ever waking minute. All she knows is that she wants him back.

Determined, independent, flirtatious, Ema sets out to reclaim what's hers, unafraid to use her sexuality to bend others to her will. Though the film is always alive and full of motion, some of the best scenes unfold in drab offices, Ema's forthright charisma aligning everyone she meets  – including a divorce lawyer and a school principal – to her cause. Entering into a series of sweaty love affairs, there's a sense of a sexual odyssey being undertaken, a bid to reclaim control of a life gone sour.

It's an intentionally ambiguous film that is dealt to us in fragments, where an overall storyline is suggested but never really made explicit, or clear, until the very end, if at all. It's perhaps best enjoyed without thinking about how it all fits together, though the puzzle-like nature of the images – including scenes where Ema straps a flamethrower to her back and burns objects in the deserted city streets – push you to look for more. Some of the elements don't quite add up; are the excessive nature of Ema's machinations necessary, or even realistic?

You sense that's not the point. The woozy atmosphere, emphasised by Nicolas Jaar's electronic score and Sergio Armstrong's neon-addled cinematography, makes up for any ambiguity, the film itself – part divorce drama, part music video, part experimental dance piece – intoxicating on aesthetic terms alone. The ending has a little Donnie Darko about it, whereby the cast, one by one, seem to address what's happened to them in a private moment of reflection, and also there is a hint that we, too, have been blinded by Ema's charms.

Pablo Larraín continues to be a bold and unpredictable voice in contemporary cinema; it will be interesting to see where he goes next. On this evidence, it could be anywhere.

Where to watch online

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