A traffic light blazes against the night sky of a neon-coated city. The street seems curiously quiet and deserted. Perhaps, it’s the aftermath of a riot or someone finally erupting over the frustrations of a global lockdown. The camera retreats to reveal the fire-raiser: a woman, strapped with a flamethrower and sporting protective gear, stands back to savour her latest performance art. The opening shot of Pablo Larraín’s Ema introduces us to the titular character, and heralds what is to come.
We meet the twenty-something dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her much older (by 12 years) choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) in the aftermath of their crumbling marriage. The couple are torn apart after being forced to give up custody of their adopted son Polo, who (Gastón accuses) picked up his mom’s propensity for pyromania (i.e. an arson incident that left Ema’s sister severely burnt). A blame game ensues — you abandoned him, you were the bad parent, you cared too much or too little, etc. — as neither hesitate in accusing the other of the worst charges. They can’t accept their shared role in this failure of parenthood. This schism unleashes in Ema an incendiary energy that erupts in a whirlwind of dance, sex and arson. In a journey in search of herself, she will incinerate every barrier (family, marriage, work, sexuality), before rebuilding herself with the liberating power of her body, her youth and her sexuality.
Fire, as previously mentioned, is a key element in Ema — one which destroys but also makes room for new life. It is present in the burning star which serves as the backdrop for Gastón’s choreography, but also burning deep inside the protagonist. Pyromania becomes performance art for her. The ceremonial destruction of public property becomes not only an empowering weapon to burn down the patriarchy, but also a ritual for cleansing pain so she can be free to claim a brighter future. In the process, Di Girolamo’s slicked-back platinum-blonde punk AF heroine will burn down every structural, social and sexual barrier preventing her from blazing her own trail of freedom. As she says, at times you must “burn in order to sow again.”
Di Girolamo’s performance is a near-perfect pirouette. By allowing her character to steer her own destiny, Larraín gives her a redemptive power. Ema is unapologetic in her pursuits, even convincing the people around her to indulge themselves in the frenzy without ends, limits or boundaries. Larraín stages the collective trance of Ema and her dance troupe against the quiet streets of Valparaíso. Driven by impulse and not always rationality, she boasts a magnetic influence on her friends. One night, she incites a late-night lesbian orgy where she even invites her divorce lawyer. On another, she sleeps with a fireman who puts out one of her fires. Larraín shoots these intimate scenes with sensuality and sensitivity, focusing more on conveying the emotions to these moments.
Of course, it is Ema’s guilt and regret over her son which drives her elaborate telenovela-crazy plot to reunite with her son. In the end, by deconstructing the traditional family unit with all its barriers, betrayals and bitterness, she lets us imagine an aspirational model without them — aided by the perfect balance between desire and duty. It is a family unit comprised of those the disapproving social worker in the film asserts the system cuts out.
Larraín uses reggaeton sequences over dialogue in a film where conflicts are resolved in sex and dance rather than words. The dialogue merely serves to remind us there’s a plot. By using the abstracted form of reggaeton as communication, the film retains an essence of mystery. In a scene, Gastón criticises reggaeton as low art, mansplaining it to be an expression of street culture that has been weaponised by men to objectify women. Ema and her friend remind him of its empowering nature to women and the intrinsically sexual nature of dancing itself, arguing it is essentially sex with clothes on, or as George Bernard Shaw once described it, “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalised by music.” Larraín thus uses reggaeton as a reaffirmation of female desire, and the exaltation of freedom.
Nicolás Jaar’s score further elevates the film’s sexual energy as Di Girolamo and the other characters beautifully synchronise with the rhythmic stimuli. It is a pity we won’t be able to enjoy these visceral delights on the big screen for the foreseeable future.
After Neruda and Jackie, Larraín frees himself from anti-biopics to render his experimental inclinations into a sensual and sensory overload. But it is more than just a style-over-substance spectacle of gratuitous aesthetic masturbation. Through an intoxicating spectacle of bodies in motion, he choreographs a portrait of a woman who unashamedly refuses to be guided by society’s rules and dictates. Ema is Larraín’s very own “portrait of a lady on fire.”
Ema is now streaming on Mubi India.
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Updated Date: May 03, 2020 13:52:47 IST