Pablo Larraín’s latest film, Ema, opens with an incredibly arresting scene. The camera pans out above a dark street. Fizzing and crackling, a traffic light is aflame, with hot metal dripping and fire slowly working along the wires that suspend the light above the road. Who lit the fire and why, we don’t know. All we have is an image of order melting away, and the booming, dissonant backing track that becomes the film’s theme.
Ema is a complex, unsettling film, carried by powerful acting and intense energy. It revolves around dancer Ema (the exceptional Mariana Di Girólamo), whose husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is the choreographer of their dance company. I write ‘revolves’ deliberately, because the world and characters of this film spin and career around Ema, its self-sustaining and seemingly in-control centre. Or is it, perhaps, the other way around?
The film begins with Ema and Gastón’s relationship becoming increasingly toxic, as they find new ways to blame each other for the circumstances that led to the return of their adopted son, Polo, to the state. The exact details are left uncertain: Polo apparently caused an incident that led to Ema’s sister being burned terribly; but the couple’s deep hurt and guilt – and Ema’s own attraction to fire – suggest complex undercurrents. Eventually, Ema leaves Gastón with the full support of some of the other women who dance with the company. A chance sighting of Polo with his new foster parents sparks an idea for Ema, which leads she and the audience down a wild, layered road of seduction and deception.
Ema has numerous dance scenes, from the rehearsals and performances of the professional experimental company, to the more-organic reggaeton sessions at local Valparaíso parks. But movement, and acute awareness of the body, are central to the entire film. The way actors populate the scene, and the way the camera interacts with them, seems – even in scenes that involve no dancing – to be choreographed. Not in a way that seems forced or unnatural; rather, in a way that underscores characters’ awareness of each other’s bodies and motivations, even when this awareness is based on flawed understandings. The cinematography, in its support of the physicality and rhythm of the film, is exquisite.
But there is a strange dissonance in the film, which in many ways suits the driving, occasionally harsh soundtrack. Character reactions to some of the more unusual happenings of the film sometimes border on unbelievable, with a surreal neutrality recalling Yorgos Lanthimos, interspersed with occasional outbursts of intense emotion or sexual feeling. When paired with the experimental movements and visuals of Gastón’s choreographies, or the violent images of flaming statues and outbuildings, these unusual character reactions could lead to Larrain’s film being viewed as a surreal-ish art piece. But if taken as realism, the film can instead be read as an off-kilter exploration of how ideas of parenthood, adulthood, stability, and gender, can permeate a person’s sense of self and worth; and how when that person doesn’t meet some part of these expectations, they and those around them can struggle to negotiate the fallout.
In this film, the traditional and the radical are placed in regular opposition. Gastón attacks Ema for what he sees as her failings as a mother, and he and Ema’s friends clash over the ‘degenerateness’ of sexual, wild reggaeton as a form of music and dance; Ema tries to reclaim Polo through official channels, then resorts to radical plans of her own; and the ordered daylight scenes of schools, buses, and lawyer’s offices are replaced with the chaos of drunkenness, reeling sex, and flaming destruction come night-time. Ema is at the centre of these contrasts: to each character, she is theirs, in a form that’s understandable and controllable for them; but really she is using them all to construct, in her own radical way and from all this complexity, the reality that she most desires.
Whether taken as a portrait of a person’s descent into instability and even madness, as a gritty interrogation of traditional roles of adulthood and parenthood, as an exploration of the body, or as a surreal family portrait, Ema is a film that claws at the seams of art’s and society’s notions of what is settled and what is acceptable. While it isn’t consistently coherent or satisfyingly moving, and although its conclusion was more neatly sewn-up than I hoped – when it finishes, everyone, viewer or character, is left stunned and amazed by the depth and creativity of Ema’s machinations and determination. The film spins and revolves, but lands exactly how she wants it to.
Four Pelicans out of Five.
Ema runs at Somerville Auditorium from the 1st to the 8th of March.
Words by Riley Faulds.
Images courtesy of Perth Festival.