ARTNEWSPRESS: Gael Garcia Bernal and Mariana Di Girolamo blame each other for quitting on their adoptive son. Is either correct? And will we ever meet him?
Pablo Larrain is the great discombobulator of modern cinema, a master of black jokes, a spinner of transgressive tales. Like Yorgos Lanthimos (his closest contemporary), he makes work that inhabits a social landscape of strangeness, where conversations jump from the candid to the downright inappropriate and characters remain a mystery, sometimes even to themselves. We wouldn’t want to live in the world Larrain shows us. But his films are so good they convince us that we do.
Over the last decade or so, the Chilean director has told stories about demented John Travolta impersonators (Tony Manero), disgraced Catholic priests (The Club) and a grief-stricken First Lady (Jackie). And while I confess that I found Ema to be a notch down on his best work, it’s still hugely distinctive and daring and may well be a grower. Past evidence suggests that Larrain’s films infect us like a virus. We leave the cinema feeling nice and cool. Then two days later we’re burning up.
Pungently set in the port city of Valparaiso (ferry rides; funiculars), Larrain’s latest – an opaque thriller of sorts – narrows in on Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), an estranged married couple who still work together down at the local dance company. Each blames the other for abandoning their adoptive son Polo, who we understand has now been returned to the orphanage. They loved Polo so much that it breaks their hearts not to have him around – even if yes, the kid could be quite the handful at times. One day he burned down the house, and torched his aunt’s face and shut the dog inside the freezer.
Ema’s woozy, unsettling opening leads us to expect a tale along the lines of We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which a pair of middle-class parents fall prey to a pocket psychopath. And yet Larrain takes a perverse delight in wrong-footing his audience – this time, perhaps, too much delight. So he spins us around and leads us off through the dark, steadfastly refusing to introduce us to Polo. Without the opportunity to study the defendant there’s no real way of knowing what prompted his crimes (or, for that matter, whether he is even to blame). Is Polo a monster or are there other factors at play? Maybe his parents are responsible; maybe they made him what he is.
Certainly there is something faintly monstrous about both Ema and Gaston, although again this could be because they are knackered and miserable and warped by grief. They taunt each other mercilessly, Both – openly, defiantly – are seeing other people. It’s clear that these two still love one another but the connective tissue is torn; some basic human kindness has gone missing.
This, of course, isn’t all that’s missing. Polo is Larrain’s crafty equivalent of Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece; the invisible third point in this disturbing love triangle who, even by his absence, defines the other two parties, both individually and as a couple. Happily the film longs for Polo just as much as they do. And cleverly, secretively it is preparing quite the welcome.