Pablo Larraín, probably the most prominent Chilean director in the world right now, has at this point directed eight feature films. Most of these are period films; most of these are explicitly about politics; most of them have a certain performative sense of irony. His eighth and newest film, Ema falls into not one of those categories. And it is, I regret to say, not particularly good.

The film is a brave attempt to do a character study without building it around a character: our protagonist Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), who is in every single scene of the film and a commanding majority of its individual shots, is defined for us as viewers almost entirely in terms of our lack of access to her as a psychological being. She is a negative space, deliberately forbidding the viewer from seeing inside her head just as thoroughly as she forbids  the rest of the characters from understanding her, right down to breaking the fourth wall in the film's penultimate shot in a cryptic look into the camera that makes it very, very clear that this is something the film is doing to us on purpose. If we are able to extract anything from this, it's the understanding that building these impenetrable walls between herself and all of humanity is how Ema elects to deal with a horrible, traumatising event in her life that has made her feel guilty and resentful towards others, both emotions that she wishes to suppress. That's not a lot of yield for the amount of work the movie asks us to do in order to get there.

Ema's backstory is presented in little snatches over the early going, so it's already taking out some of the fun to explain what's going on, but there's plenty more where this came from: Ema and her husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal), who is also the artistic director of the modern dance company she performs with, recently adopted a young boy. Even more recently, they returned him to the orphanage, after learning that he has a very definite psychopath-in-training streak, one that involves dead animals and fires, but not simultaneously. And immediately after doing that, they were both struck with powerful feelings of their own guilt, and their loathing of each other. So as the movie begins, Ema is beginning divorce proceedings against Gastón, while pouring herself into dances that sometimes definitely take place in the real world, and sometimes might take place in the real world, but are regardless of that fact very definitely symbolic expressions of Ema's remorse and regret, channeled through her aggressively angular gestures, like she's made her body into a collection of knives, stabbing at the world and herself.

Whatever other limits I might find in the movie, this much is undeniable: Ema is a phenomenal dance movie, when it wants to be. Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong have shot the entire film as a collection of boxy compositions, emphasising walls and ceilings and the depth of the acting space (the is the other thing that's undeniable: it is beautifully shot), and the movie as a whole feels like a collection of dioramas, each portraying some fraught moment of human disconnection. The dance sequences rip this apart, blowing the lid of the movie, as it were, by opening up in every direction, while the camera limbers itself up to approach the dance from different angles and distances. It's not quite the case that the camera moves with the dance, so much as that the presence of dancing seems to give the camera lease to free itself from the rigidity of the aesthetic elsewhere in the film. And this is a fine way for the film to get at the matter of Ema's emotional closure, providing a stylistic way in to the feeling of the dance, since she will not otherwise be letting us have any access to those feelings.

Great enough, but the problem is that there aren't nearly enough dance scenes in the film, and they're only giving us one angle into one aspect of Ema's personality. The rest of the film is nothing but those visual boxes, filled with stifled conversations and moment after moment of Ema letting the presence of other people glide around her without perturbing her surface in the least, remaining a profoundly unknowable, unreachable figure. Di Girolamo is doing fine work with the limitations of the role that Larraín and his co-writers Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno have set for her, but the result is still a performance, and a character, defined almost entirely in negative terms, forcing us to watch around the character in order to see into her.

This is challenging when it starts, and the film leads with its dance material; it gets more challenging still as Larraín and company start to feed in some underplayed melodrama, when Ema crosses paths with her rejected son Polo (Christián Sánchez), and her granite composure briefly wobbles. And it goes to other melodramatic places still, always while preserving the slightly glassy mood that it has established thus far. Whether the handsome, austere style to the non-dancing scenes are enough to do the work the film needs, I cannot say; I do wish that the overall mood of the look and Di Girolamo's performance weren't quite so calm and naturalistic; it's not really at all a naturalistic film, though, and it feels like this would benefit extremely well from the dry self-amusement of Larraín's last Chilean-set film, Neruda, or the more overtly arch stylisation of his last film overall, Jackie, with its mood of sober camp. Ema's willingness to frustrate our expectations of how movies work is interesting enough, so far as it goes, but I'm not sure what it's doing besides being frustrating; it's not very lively in the moments that aren't centered around dancing or a few other moments that have a similar performative quality, and without liveliness (or at least without any tangible sense of humor, however dry), Ema just ends up feeling a bit flat, more like a sketch of ideas for a character study than a character study in actuality. This is a conscious choice, of course, not a failing, but it's a conscious choice that I'm not sure I "get"; having now fought with the film two times, I admire its craft and its explosions of style during the dance sequences, but try as I might, I just bounce right off of everything else here.