Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
Chile, 2019. Fabula. Screenplay by Guillermo Calderon, Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Moreno. Cinematography by Sergio Armstrong. Produced by Juan de Dios Larrain. Music by Nicolas Jaar. Production Design by Estefania Larrain. Costume Design by Felipe Criado, Muriel Parra. Film Editing by Sebastian Sepulveda.
The Ema of the title is ruthless character who is laser-focused on getting what she wants, and this would be so much more to the film’s benefit if she wasn’t also inscrutable at the same time. Unlikeable we can handle, but it’s hard to know exactly what the aim is of Pablo Larrain to present a protagonist who spends the entire film being so destructively single-minded without either gaining wisdom from its blowing up in her face, or satisfaction from it going her way: is it a criticism of the young generation of the self-involved, identity-obsessed and pathetically impractical, or a defense of a new era of free thinkers who refuse to let community pressure dictate their decisions?
While waiting to find out, indulge yourself in the aesthetic pleasures of this film because there are many, beginning with a gorgeous, unsettling image of a stoplight on fire and continuing through to a performance being done by the performance troupe that Ema is a part of. She’s a dancer who is married to the group’s director Gaston, an unconventional creator who is twelve years her senior played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Their number that opens the film, a gorgeously scored, beautifully lit work presented in a dark open space backlit by stunning sci-fi-esque computer graphics, is interspersed with scenes that help us put together the trauma that happens before the film begins.
Ema and Gaston adopted a little boy but gave him back to the orphanage they adopted him from, which led to the child committing a violent act whose tragic consequences still hang over their heads. Their social worker openly criticizes their immature foolishness, their peers look down on them, and Ema only cares about getting the child back.
Finding out that he has been adopted by a new couple, she sets about meeting both the husband, who is a firefighter played by Santiago Cabrera, and the wife, a divorce lawyer played by Paola Giannini, and seduces them both; wielding a very dangerous blowtorch and unafraid to employ her sexuality to manipulate situations to whatever extent necessary, Ema seems to have a skill for tapping into what people want and making them think they’re getting it from her, when really she’s the one who is doing all the taking. Her determination to get her way hardens her against her husband, their relationship was never going to survive this situation anyway, and before long it affects their working relationship as well, as she and her sister band together to turn the dance group against him.
All of this sounds exciting, particularly considering the undeniably captivating visuals involved, but there is one key ingredient at the heart of the experience that doesn’t work and one cannot get past it: Ema doesn’t work as a femme fatale, it makes not a whit of sense that the common-sense people she meets disrupt their productive lives to explore her mystery, in particular because actress Mariana Di Girólamo has none. Flat and lacking a great deal of charisma, Di Girólamo doesn’t engender the gleeful nihilism that an antiheroine should have, so that by the time we get to the morally noncommittal ending, the feeling is more frustration than fascination with this daring voyage into the unknown.
Toronto International Film Festival: 2019
Venice Film Festival: In Competition