“And then he sets fire to the house and burns your sister’s face. So what? These are normal things,” says the social worker. Ema is a visually stunning but rather bizarre story of a young dancer and her choreographer husband who “give” their adoptive child back after a series of antisocial behaviours – including putting a cat in a freezer and setting fire to a house. Now, Ema is on a mission to get her son back, and it seems to involve a lot of sex.
The scenes in Ema are cut with dance sequences and sex scenes, sometimes interchangeably. Colour is important to this film; many of the shots have one dominant colour to add a sense of otherworldliness to the proceedings. Fire is also an important motif, although why characters keep burning things is never explained.
The music is off-kilter, with sinister undertones, which adds to the weird atmosphere. The shots are sometimes uncomfortable. At one point, the camera lingers on the frozen cat for painfully long, heightening the sense of unease.
Ema is a reggaeton dancer, a style described by one character in the film as an orgasm which can be danced. Dance is a big part of the film – whether shown in rehearsal, on the street or in a club. The style is not the most technically impressive, but it is fast-paced and beat-heavy and gives a sense of breaking free, of losing restraint. The world in Ema seems like a sexual free-for-all, perhaps because it is seen through the protagonist’s eyes.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a sensual character having relations with pretty much every adult in the film. There is a disturbing scene early on when Gustav (Gael García Bernal) accuses Ema of flirting with their adoptive child, who is seven years old – which is left ambiguous, doesn’t really make sense to the story and feels unnecessary.
The main relationship between Ema and Gustav is cruel, even repellent, but they seem to have a bond which ties them together no matter how horrible they are to each other. Both actors give good performances, but as neither character seems to experience many “up” emotions they don’t show as full a range as they are capable of. There isn’t really character development and you don’t really get a strong sense of what motivates Ema, but that doesn’t make her unbelievable – just perhaps unsympathetic.
This film is sexy, colourful and confusing, and will ultimately leave you thinking “What?” The characters are not “nice”, and the central relationship is full of red flags, but something about Ema makes you want to be a part of this hyper-sexualised world where club nights turn into orgies. If you want to be impressed by some quality cinematography while also getting slightly turned on, this is the film for you.
Ema is released on demand on Mubi on 2nd May 2020.
Watch the trailer for Ema here: