Director: Pablo Larrain
Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal
Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s latest film Ema begins with the sound of burning. We then see Ema – a woman in her late-twenties, with bleached blonde hair, standing like a mythic figure, with a flamethrower strapped to her back. She is literally fiery. This act of arson alludes to fractured emotions. We want to know her better, to understand what demons compel her to torch public property. We are instantly hooked.
Larrain, whose earlier films include Jackie, which earned Natalie Portman a Best Actress Oscar nomination and The Club, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, is a master of ruptured mind states. Ema, played with a ferocious intensity by Mariana di Girolamo, is complicated, emotionally opaque, confrontational, even unlikable. Larrain takes us into her head through images of startling beauty and strangeness, captured by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong. The film isn’t always coherent but it’s hypnotic.
The film, like the character, unfolds to its own tempo. Which doesn’t always work
The story unfolds in the seaside city of Valparaiso. Ema is a Reggaeton dancer. Her husband Gaston – a restrained and tragic Gael Garcia Bernal – is a choreographer, who is 12 years older than her. The couple adopt Polo, a troubled young boy, with disastrous results – he burns Ema’s sister’s face. A cat is found dead in the freezer. So the couple return him to the adoption agency and then descend into an acrimonious rage. It’s almost like a Spanish Marriage Story. They hurl such hateful accusations at each other that you can barely stand to be in the same room – he is infertile so she calls him a human condom and says that he can never give her a real son. He tells her that Polo dislikes her more because a woman’s betrayal is so much harder.
Ema deals with the turmoil by embarking on an odyssey of sex and destruction. It’s almost like she wants to annihilate herself and everything in her way so something new can be born. At one point, she tells a lover: I’m evil. Why does Ema want a child so badly? Is it a primal maternal instinct? How much did she contribute to Polo’s behavior – Gaston suggests that she taught him to set things on fire and at one point, even allowed him to suck on her breast. What drives her to do the things she does? Larrain doesn’t provide any easy answers. But Ema’s insistence on shaping her own destiny propels the film.
The film comes together as a conversation about what constitutes family, what the impulses of motherhood are, tradition versus modernity, the body as a political tool
Larrain filters Ema’s emotional state through music, dance and impressionistic images. Some sequences resemble music videos. So images are juxtaposed together not necessarily for a logical unity but to create a larger beat. The film, like the character, unfolds to its own tempo. Which doesn’t always work. By the second hour, Ema’s frenzied life, which includes a fluorescent sex montage, loses its grip. Larrain’s jugglery of colors, music, dance and visuals overtakes the emotional undercurrents of the story. Style trumps substance.
But I would urge you to stay with the film. Because the story circles around to a climax that is at once, surprising and satisfying. The film comes together as a conversation about what constitutes family, what the impulses of motherhood are, tradition versus modernity, the body as a political tool. Ema is an inexplicable force of nature who compels us to re-examine our own assumptions.
A person like Ema would probably be terrifying in person because her desires are so unfettered. Which is also why she’s fascinating. Ema is essentially life as an intoxicating performance art.
You can see the film on MUBI.