A traffic light suspended from a wire across a city street is on fire. As the camera pans back we see a figure in protective clothing holding a flame thrower. It’s clear from the first scene that Pablo Larráin’s Ema is going to be something special. Rules are going to be broken, conventions overturned.
The Chilean director made it to Hollywood with Jackie, his 2016 bio pic of Jackie Kennedy. Ema finds him back in Valparaíso, with a remarkably edgy production. It’s a movie destined for cult status, featuring an anti-heroine with a look and an attitude that will prove infectious. If you happen to be a disaffected, late-20s, polymorphous perverse woman this is the film you’ve been waiting for.
Don’t expect any resemblances with Jane Austen’s Emma. Larráin’s version is a dancer with a slicked-back peroxide mane. Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is part of an avant-garde dance company and wife of the choreographer, Gastón (no surprises: Gael García Bernal). The relationship is in trouble because the couple adopted a little boy named Polo (Cristián Suárez), then gave him back to Child Services. This marks them as bad parents in the eyes of everyone, especially a social worker, Marcela (Catalina Saavedra), who swears at Ema like a trooper.
Ema and Gastón obsess over the boy and look for ways of blaming each other. According to Marcela they are both weirdos and violent people. Gastón, who is accused of homosexual tendencies, complains to Ema that her approach to motherhood was sexualised in an unhealthy way. Apparently she was delighted that Polo found her “beautiful”, she would undress in front of him and even offer the boy her breast.
Ema also stands accused of encouraging anti-social tendencies such as pyromania. Her sister lies in hospital after Polo tried to burn her hair, as well as setting fire to the family home.
It’s as if we’re watching a punk rewrite of an adoption drama, one of the cinema’s most mawkish sub-genres. Ema and Gastón were far from model parents, while Polo was disturbed enough to justify being sent back from whence he came. Nevertheless, this failed mother is determined to get ‘her’ son back – by whatever methods she can muster.
Her extraordinary plan entails seducing Polo’s new foster parents, Aníbal (Santiago Cabrera) and Raquel (Paola Giannini), keeping each liaison a secret from the other. At the same time she leaves Gastón and moves in with Sonia (Giannina Fruttero), a friend from the dance troupe. She is now the centre of a girl gang that dances together, lights fires and conducts the occasional orgy.
The film is interspersed with dance sequences held on locations all over the city. The other repetitive act is Ema’s serial vandalism, accomplished with a tank of napalm Gastón acquired for a spectacle that never eventuated. Her fires are hardly less artistic than her dancing. It’s imossible to forget the image of two flaming swings drifting back and forth in the dead of night.
Each scene, whether it be an intense conversation between Ema and Gastón, a dance that resembles a video clip, the torching of public property, or some sweaty grappling in the bedroom, is treated as a self-contained episode. The story is non-sequential, a sum of many parts, a puzzle we piece together as we flesh out a picture of the lead character and her motivations.
Beauty is a big issue for Ema. Her mother always told her she was ugly and now she makes a fetish of beauty in herself and others. She tells Gastón he’s beautiful and Aníbal is also conspicuously handsome. Yet it’s a dangerous preoccupation, with a potentially malign influence. Could it be that Polo tried to burn Ema’s sister’s face because her beauty put Ema in the shade? Did he put the cat in the freezer because he was jealous of the affection inspired by its cuteness?
Beauty for Ema can’t be dissociated from sex, and sex is power. She tells her girlfriends she harbours erotic thoughts about all of them. She takes delight in discovering Raquel’s repressed lesbian fantasies.
If Ema is merely play-acting she does it with such conviction that her partners believe she is passionately devoted to them. We believe it too. This is a career-defining role for actress, Mariana Di Girólamo, who allows her body and her face to do much of the talking. Ema is defined by her physicality, with her dancing setting the tone for the way she way she lives her life, incorporating sensuality, freedom of movement and a surprising degree of structure.
Ema’s affairs are as choreographed as her work on stage. The dance sequences are set in outdoor locations and her amours follows the same pattern. She and Aníbal make love in the cabin of a firetruck, she canoodles with Raquel in public, on a ferry. She treats life as if it were a work of art, a performance, and other people merely characters to be manipulated.
When she is not dancing Ema is using her eyes and face to draw in her victims. She has mastered the art of the wide-eyed, searching gaze, filled with simmering desire.
Ema is an artist – perhaps one of those artists who see their vocation as an excuse to be selfish, shameless and amoral. She is dynamic but also demonic
Her need to start fires subscribes to Bakunin’s anarchist credo that the passion for destruction is also a creative passion. She is constantly associated with fire: through her flame thrower, Aníbal’s job as a part-time firefighter, or a massive fiery disc that forms a backdrop to a performance Gastón has created.
The dance Ema and her friends prefer – the Reggaeton – is despised by Gastón. He sees it as a vulgar, ephemeral craze. He has a rarefied view of art and rejects a dance of the streets. But this is exactly why it appeals to Ema and her entourage, who believe in the moment not in posterity. Sonia bites back at Gastón, announcing that the physical and sexual side of a dance is more important than its artistic credentials.
At this moment, the generation gap between Gastón and the dancers, including Ema, looks like a chasm. As the story spirals into a dark place we are somehow unable to judge Ema, and there’s a surprising light at the end. This is a movie that never asks us to sympathise with the characters and their problems, a story that grows in complexity upon reflection. Ema may not be for everyone but it may be the most original piece of cinema you’ll see this year.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Moreno
Starring Mariana Di Girólamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini, Cristián Suárez, Giannina Fruttero, Josefina Fiebelkorn, Mariana Loyola, Catalina Saavedra, Paula Luchsinger
Chile, rated MA 15+, 102 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 May, 2021