Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal
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… it is hard to like the characters enough, and their necessarily repetitive and stuck lives are not easy to stay with for nearly two hours.
American author Gore Vidal once famously joked that Hollywood actors were “little men but big heads”. That came to mind when seeing Gael Garcia Bernal in this strange mixed gerne film from Chile. Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries), who was once so beautiful, has mellowed into a middle-aged man. He is still distinguished, but there is a sort of weariness about him, at least in this film. Perhaps it is the way he plays it.
He is Gaston, the partner of the eponymous Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo). Both he and Ema are involved in the world of modern dance, and they have been in an uneasy relationship for many years. When we join them, their most harmonious years are behind them, and there is both pain and pathos in seeing how they manage that familiar end game. They try for an open marriage, but they have closed their hearts.
Ema is piece of work it has to be said. Di Girolamo plays her ramped up to the max. With her dyed hair and punky clothes, she turns heads wherever she goes, and she knows it. In the beginning of the film, we gather that the couple has given up on their adopted son Polo. This has left a hole in Ema’s life that she tries to fill with manic energy and lots of drugs and casual sex. Being in a bohemian milieu, there is no shortage of participants that want to hook up with her and feed off her energy.
Gaston regards all this with an ironic stoniness. He even makes it plain to Ema that he knows she is trying to hurt him to assuage her own pain. He seems to have lost all respect for her dancing too and, in one memorable scene, he lays into her verbally about that. Her dancing, as shown here, isn’t that good. It consists of the sort of flash mob group gyrations that you get in every other pop video from the 1980s onwards. Maybe that is part of the point. If Ema and her troop were really talented as opposed to merely manically committed, then her creative career might have been more fulfilling. Mind you, Ema comes across as so madly egocentric that we can’t decide if she can tell whether she is overcompensating or is just unaware.
The director of this uneven effort is the esteemed Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain. He made the rather interesting film No (2012) about the manipulation of politics and the populace via advertising in his home country. That was an oblique and memorable take on things. This film has some of that originality/oddity but somehow it lacks the intuitive flare. We never really get to know the characters that make up this enclave of a Chilean city (here Valparaiso). Part of the problem is that it is hard to like the characters enough, and their necessarily repetitive and stuck lives are not easy to stay with for nearly two hours.