Napalm is the combustible gel you get from mixing, in the preferred variety for flamethrowers, kerosene and diesel. Throughout a lethal performance from Mariana Di Girolamo as the flamethrower-wielding title character in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s eighth film—his first since Jackie (2016)—we see an individual who is the human equal to napalm, an incinerating force whose power derives from twinned, potent fuels coming together and exploding.
Ema, a dancer, leaves off training for elite chamber recitals under her director and brooding older husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal), channeling those energies instead into propulsive reggaeton workouts in the streets with an all-woman crew. The two styles stoke the film’s entire heat from one another in a series of generous if slightly showy dance sequences, which cinematographer Sergio Armstrong swoops across using Steadicam, importing clean MTV circa 1994 aesthetics to mixed effect. A tragedy that drives Ema and Gastón apart, once social services rehouse their adopted child, also decouples Ema’s mothering side from her ferocious sexuality. These paired impulses, again, burn up everything in their path once they fuse together, as Ema tempts and caresses her way across a huge queer swathe of bodies on the way to any reunion possible with Polo (Cristián Suárez).
Larraín is clearly sensitive to all the destruction that comes along with Ema’s bright blaze. When she drags her smitten divorce attorney Raquel (Paola Giannini) to a lesbian rager, Raquel’s discomfort comes across without any derisive coloring; there is room in Larraín’s world for both attitudes toward chaos, Raquel’s repressed one and Ema’s delight in it. Even Gastón’s tirade against reggaeton (he calls it “prison-music”), in an exquisite scene from Bernal, reads as plausible, steering the film clear of the shallows once again and out of extended-music-video territory. But if there is a submerged morality at play, the 102-minute film is much more palpably a sweaty, sexy, neon-bathed scorcher. Flame on. R, 102 min.