Ema: Pablo Larraín lights some kind of delirious inferno

The Chilean virtuoso’s latest unleashes newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo as a peroxide pyromaniac dancer with an untrammelled plot to reclaim her adopted son – and a mad energy that not even Larraín can contain.

Updated: 10 December 2020

By Jessica Kiang

Mariana Di Girolamo as the titular Ema
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Ema is on disc and digital platforms.

We just don’t get movies about women like Ema, the title character of Pablo Larraín’s scratchy, bizarre, phosphorescent Venice Competition film.

That’s partly down to a wider cinematic myopia when it comes to making a difficult, enigmatic, morally ambiguous woman the subject, rather than the object, of a story. But it’s mostly because there simply are no women – no people – like Ema. As elastically portrayed in a performance of event-horizon strangeness and self-possession by newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo, Ema is an unfathomable singularity: a talented interpretative dancer; a manipulative, borderline sociopathic pyromaniac; a sexually fluid erotic spellcaster; and an anti-mother whose voracious maternal instinct drives what little plot there is.

Adding an entirely unexpected new register to the filmography of an already dazzlingly eclectic and accomplished filmmaker, Larraín’s Ema is about as lovable as a genius-level sudoku puzzle, but in it, the cinema of what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch uncategorisability has a new title for its pantheon. A traffic light suspended over a nighttime Valparaíso street is on fire. Ema, whose cheap, unflattering, slicked-back peroxide dye job somehow becomes its own iconic emblem of punkish, DGAF cool, looks on impassively from behind a welder’s mask, a homemade flamethrower pack strapped to her back. It’s a striking image (DP Sergio Armstrong is again in almost symbiotic sync with regular collaborator Larraín, constantly finding frames of raw, freeform beauty) but it is also a perfectly apt omen. If stoplights symbolise social order, convention and control, Ema is here to set all that ablaze.

Di Girolamo with Gael García Bernal as Gastón

Some time prior, Ema and her older choreographer husband Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal) had committed the unforgivable act of returning their adoptive son Polo to the orphanage, after Polo, emulating Ema, set a fire in which Ema’s sister got badly burned. The incipient violence of the child notwithstanding, it’s a decision that Ema cannot live with. And after a series of scorched-earth, blame-filled arguments with Gastón, and the stonewalling of the social services, she puts into action a devious plan to get him back – it involving a series of both-sexes seductions, often in collaboration with her fervently loyal dancer girl-gang, a kind of she-wolfpack who readily vow to commit crimes on Ema’s behalf.

But the plan is not the point. The story is interspersed with stunningly shot dance sequences and languorously explicit sex scenes (including one montage that cuts between multiple sex acts with different partners that makes it seem like Ema, the only constant, is fucking the whole world). And it’s cut to the pulsations and gyrations of Nicholas Jaar’s exceptional score, with Armstrong’s closeups of Ema’s inscrutable face acting as the pin through the heart of this burning butterfly. And what a face: pretty is an inadequate word; beautiful is wrong too. Though attractive, Ema is nothing as simple as radiant – in fact, she’s the opposite: there’s something endothermic about her, as though she’s pulling her victim in, the way a snake can hypnotise a rabbit… if the snake then went off and screwed the rabbit afterwards.

One read on this difficult, elusive film (and it does prompt multiple, often contradictory ‘readings’) is that it is more about the creative process than any of even Larraín’s most self-consciously metatextual films have been before. Neruda was a New Wave-esque deconstruction of the biopic in which Bernal’s archetypal gumshoe, trailing the famous poet, starts to believe he is actually a construct of Neruda’s imagination. Jackie was as much commentary about the former First Lady’s self-creation as an icon, and her stage-management of the legend of Camelot, as it was about Jackie herself.

Ema can be taken as an affectionate but slightly bewildered tribute to the way a thing you create can outgrow you and take on a life of its own, with Gastón’s inspired but ultimately helpless dance director standing in for Larraín and Ema the character subbing in for Ema the film; sometimes it feels like Larraín himself is unsure where the next cut will take him – which introduces an exciting, excitable looseness into a filmography of such precision and control.

But then, how do you solve a problem like Ema? How do you resolve a film like Ema? You don’t, and perhaps the major misstep here is that Larraín tries to. When you create a character so much bigger, wilder and weirder than the already wild, weird film she’s in, the very idea of resolution becomes nonsense. So when the final act swerves into seriocomic territory and finds this emotional terrorist, this agent of chaos, in a stable if unusual domesticity, it feels strangely off. But then again, perhaps any finale would: Ema is such an anarchic creation that it feels like a betrayal that her story must do anything as conventional as end.

Originally published: 3 September 2019

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