Ema (dir. Pablo Larraín, 2019) conjures up a fever dream in film format. Larraín’s movie burns like a fire; it is captivating––visually stunning––but unstable, evolving rapidly without pausing for comfort. Though branded as a “drama”, the film watches more like trippy horror, with its increasing psychological volatility leaving viewers lost and disturbed. The film forces you to process its events (and images) only after its runtime, and doing so seems almost futile––the film’s surrealist nature impedes any concreteness.
The film opens to a black screen. We hear sounds of fire crackling. A boat’s deep horn sounds, birds squawk in the distance. The first image appears: a traffic light on fire above an empty street, framed narrowly by buildings on either side. It is night, or early morning, a black cloud emerging from the fire into the cobalt sky. The camera dollies back, revealing Ema (Mariana di Girolamo), the eponymous character. She is equipped with a type of backpack flamethrower, and a face shield visor. She stares at the fire for a moment, then turns and walks away. We see her along a port, as she surveys the ocean. An early morning sky silhouettes her body and the nearby landscape: a vision of light blues and soft pinks. The images evoke a calmness in their material beauty that is punctured by the concurrent absurdity. Why did Ema set the traffic light on fire?
Pablo Larraín doesn’t ever answer those kinds of questions for you. “It’s a recurring theme in Larraín’s career, that unwillingness to make life easy for the viewers. To test their ability to understand what’s in front of them (Phippen).” Even the film’s plot is hard to digest. Ema follows its titular character, a young reggaeton dancer who is married to Gastón (Gael García Bernal), the choreographer of the dance troupe she belongs to. We encounter an Ema post-freak accident––in which a fire set by her adoptive son Polo (Cristán Suárez), scars and hospitalizes her sister. Ema and Gastón have returned their seven-year-old son to the orphanage, their own relationship crumbling. What follows is centered around Ema’s attempt to get Polo back, though it wouldn’t be accurate to say there is a clear narrative structure.
According to Larraín, he “[likes] to have the audience processing the movie at the same time as the filmmaker.” Ema flows with a rhythm of a dance; the sensations are up-front, in-your-face––and in this case, often in an extremely off-putting way. The dialogue is jarring, and Larraín positions you right in the midst of it all:
[Gastón]: “You wanted him to burn the house down. So I’d have to…I don’t know. Give him back. He burned your sister’s face.”
[Ema] : “They thought you were infertile from getting something and not treating it. So it’s your fault, Gastón. That we had to do all this shit and that we adopted a child with a mustache. It’s your fault that we couldn’t stand him. And it’s your fault that my whole body hurts. And that people look at us in public. Like we suffocated a dog with a plastic bag.”
Larraín films this scene with alternating long shots of Ema and Gastón. Guillermo Caldéron and Alejandro Moran’s improvised script (it was written during the filming) lends their words an eccentric quality, at-times more like poetry than speech. Ema and Gastón seem physically far apart from one another; and we are placed right in the middle of their vicious exchange, making it all the more intense.
Alight with neon and electrifying dance sequences, Pablo Larraín, along with cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, editor Sebastián Sepúlveda and scriptwriters, craft a beautiful film. Ema feels like absurdist nonsense, that does bordern on the superficial. Regardless, emotionally-charged moments stick with you long after a viewing.
Phippen, Richard. “‘Jackie’ Director Pablo Larraín: ‘Cinema is always a political act’”. NME. April 30, 2020. https://www.nme.com/film-interviews/pablo-larrain-interview-ema-jackie-director-2655341
Gleiberman, Owen. “‘Ema’: Film Review.” Variety. August 31, 2019. https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/ema-review-pablo-larrain-1203319869/
Chen, Nick. “Pablo Larraín on Ema, a sexual dance epic with flamethrowers.” DAZED. May 1, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/49071/1/pablo-larrain-mariana-di-girolamo-ema-interview