I’m currently catching up with this year’s Oscar nominees in my down time, a shameful ritual that I mostly use as a motivational deadline for movies I planned to seek out anyway. The Oscars can’t bully me into watching keeping-up-with-the-discourse titles like Belfast or Don’t Look Up!, since I have no personal interest in their existence beyond how they might play into this year’s ceremony. The nominations are useful for pressuring me to seek out prestige flicks leftover from the Best of 2021 listmaking season, though, and I’ve recently enjoyed catching up with titles like Parallel Mothers, Nightmare Alley, Summer of Soul, and The Worst Person in the World since they were announced. So far, there has only been one major disappointment in this year’s catch-up ritual: the Princess Diana biopic Spencer. I hate to say it, because I’m generally a fan, but Kristen Stewart’s performance as Diana Spencer is the only reason it did not work for me, and it happens to be the only category the film was nominated for (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role). Spencer‘s retro couture, ghostly imagery, and suffocating tension are all consistently effective, but Stewart’s the anchor of every dramatic beat and it all just rings as embarrassingly phony. It feels like a Kate McKinnon parody instead of the genuine thing. That didn’t bother me so much when Natalie Portman channeled Jinkx Monsoon in its spiritual predecessor Jackie, but Spencer feels like it’s running away from the laidback cool of Stewart at her best, and the gamble just didn’t pay off.
What’s most frustrating about Spencer‘s dramatic disappointments is that director Pablo Larraín did deliver a stellar, accolades-worthy picture in 2021 that’s mostly going unnoticed while the inferior one’s out there chasing awards statues. Ema would not have qualified for this year’s Academy Awards even if it were the kind of picture that institution tends to recognize (it’s far from it), since COVID derailed its distribution in a messy, years-long path from its festival run in 2019 to widely accessible screens. I would at least have liked to see it celebrated on more critics’ Best of the Year lists, though, which tend to have a less pedantic approach to citing a film’s official release (i.e., accounting for wide distribution rather than limited screenings in elitist hubs like Cannes, Venice, New York, and LA). Even I failed to highlight Ema as Best of 2021 material on my own modest platform, waiting to access a DVD copy as a library loan instead of spending $5 to see it VOD before weighing in on Swampflix’s Top 10 list for the year. That DVD was eventually put on hold for me this February, and if I were re-drafting my personal Best of 2021 list again today Ema would have ranked among my top three favorites of the year (along with Titane & I Blame Society, all great films about violently transgressive women). I can at least take solace in knowing that it ranked on Hanna’s personal Best of 2021 list for this site and, more importantly, that none of this listmaking or awards-season bullshit ultimately matters anyway. It’s all an overly complicated movie promotion machine, a process I can sidestep at any time simply by saying this: Ema is a great movie, and I highly recommend you seek it out.
Part erotic thriller, part domestic melodrama, and part interpretive dance, Ema feels like Almodóvar doing Climax, which I mean as the highest of compliments to Larraín. A young couple become pariahs in their Chilean town by returning their son to his adoption agency after ten months of parenting, as if they were returning a faulty home appliance. The son’s absence haunts their household like the ghostly presences of Jackie & Diana in Larraín’s political psych-thrillers. Only, Polo is alive & retrievable in a nearby home – adopted out to a new, more affectionate family. Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is content to deal with the fallout of Polo’s exit by endlessly debating who was the worse parent with his wife/employee, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo). Ema takes a more pro-active approach to restoring order to the family, scamming her way into Polo’s new household Parasite-style and—no exaggeration—burning down half of their town with a flamethrower until she gets what she wants. She leaves her subservient life as an anonymous member of her choreographer-husband’s avant-garde dance troupe to form a vicious girl gang who are willing to fuck, scratch, dance, and burn the world to the ground in Ema’s name. Meanwhile, she only grows more powerful the further she drifts away from her husband’s petty criticisms of her moral character (ranging from her ineptitude as a mother to her ill-reputable taste in reggaeton dance music). The film can only end with every character in Ema’s orbit observing her infamy in stunned silence, impressed but horrified by how much chaos she’s willing to unleash in order to get her kid back – a kid she once casually tossed away.
As the title and synopsis suggest, the film is in awe of Ema as a character more so than it is interested in the logistics of its drama. She recalls the subversive anti-heroines of erotic thrillers past – like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, with a severe bisexual haircut to match. It’s like being intensely horny is her superpower, a force so overwhelming it bends everyone to her fucked-up will. Wielding a napalm-dripping flamethrower is only her second most dangerous weapon, considering how much more societal terrorism she achieves through sex (along with her harem of fellow dancers). Ema the character is alone a spectacle to behold, and it feels like every other aspect of the film exists only in service of admiring her from different angles. The domestic melodrama she shares with Gastón only exists to highlight her viciousness, as the doomed couple use memories of their collective failure as parents to inflict maximum pain on each other in constant emotional cheap shots. The reggaeton & interpretive dance sequences add a lyrical exuberance to her city-wide mayhem, making it clear that she’s having fun ruining the lives of everyone around her in the relentless pursuit of her selfish goals. Even poor Polo is only a mirror reflection of Ema’s fantastic wickedness, as his maternally inherited hedonism & pyromania are exactly what drove him back to the adoption agency in the first place. And the flame thrower? That just makes Ema look like a badass, like Rambo wielding a rocket launcher.
All the things I admired about Jackie & Spencer are readily present in Ema: the unbearable tension, the over-the-top costuming & theatrics, the fascination with the inner lives of Complicated Women, all of it. The difference is that the historical drama is an inherently more restrained genre than the erotic thriller, no matter how much Larraín tries to mussy up his performance-piece biopics with arthouse mystique. Ema is totally free to be its fabulous, fucked-up self with no respect owed to historical figures or the conventions of good taste. It’s a shame that its distribution was so muddled by the chaos of COVID, since it at least could have earned as big of a cult following as Titane in the right circumstances (which landed on Hulu within months of winning the Palme d’Or). I can only hope that Ema gradually cultivates that kind of following over time, and I encourage anyone who enjoyed Titane to give this sinister spectacle a shot as well; it’s the closest any film has come to besting it for my favorite release of 2021.