Dancer Ema (Mariana Girolamo) wanted more than anything to have a child to bring up, and as her husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) was impotent, which she did not know when she married him, he was not able to make her pregnant. Therefore adoption was their only option, and that did not go so well either, for the child they fostered became increasingly unruly and violent, and now has been given back to the agency since Ema and her partner cannot take care of him anymore in the wild state he is in. Understandably, this has put a serious strain on the marriage, yet will Ema have to give up on her dreams of motherhood and instead lose herself in her new passion of dance?
One of writer and director Pablo Larraín's movies where you were not necessarily supposed to admire, or maybe even like, the protagonist, this was a downright peculiar melodrama which took its time to examine the maladjusted psychology of its lead without taking the opportunity to explain why she ended up as she did - you had to take it for granted that she was a one-woman disaster area. She doesn't seem to be for a long stretch of the film, but after a while you begin to piece together the clues the story is eking out and put two and two together to make five; the grand finale where we realise what she has been up to all along rendered this a mystery drama in its way.
So much so that the last five minutes felt like a punchline to a not particularly funny joke, though it was preposterous enough to be that style of narrative. Before that, Ema was also a sort of musical, not that the characters burst into song, but they did burst into dance as the lead's job offers the chance to watch her in action with her friends and colleagues. Gastón was not left out of this; although Bernal did not dance, he played a choreographer who Ema had latched onto - this was before she was aware of his personal problem - and predictably they did not stay wed for long. Mind you, that was about all that was predictable about our anti-heroine, so perverse was she.
That's perverse in personality rather than sexuality, though her bisexuality initially appears to be part of her adventurous spirit until we realise what she is performing is an obsessive act of manipulation. We do not see the little boy who she and Gastón adopted very much, but alarm bells should have been ringing when we hear about him: for instance, one of Ema's friends has been permanently disfigured by the child's love of fire, and Ema makes excuses for him as if he was too young to know what he was doing. Yet what's this? Ema hitting the town with a flamethrower and setting various cars, traffic lights and playparks alight? So who is supposed to be the pyromaniac again, the little boy or his one-time adoptive parent? What looks like eccentricity is actually a lot grimmer.
Girolamo was effective enough in her role to keep you guessing as to what Ema was up to, though part of that was Larraín's obfuscation in deciding what to keep from the audience and what to drip feed us with as far as the plot went. This had a distancing effect, and while you found out why that was - you do not want to get too close to this woman, even if she is a fictional character - the interest in working out what made her tick was held at bay to an extent by the chilly presentation and technique. Every so often the movie would break up the drama with those dance numbers, and even a couple of sex sequences which we may think are there to be erotic distractions, but in retrospect demonstrate just how far Ema will go to pull the strings of those around her and are in fact weirdly disturbing. This is because, from the path these efforts traditionally take, we will spend the film believing Ema is the one who needs help until we twig everyone else needs help to escape her. Music by Nicolas Jaar.