Quemar para sembrar: Pablo Larraín’s Ema
Presented at last year’s Venice Film Festival but still largely unseen in American theaters (general release is slated for summer), Ema (2019), the latest film by the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is a film much larger than the sum of its plot points, at once visceral and infectious. Set in the cultural heart of El Valparaíso, Chile, it tells the story of Ema (Mariana di Girolamo)—a young dancer who, in an attempt to reunite with the adopted son she previously returned to social services, breaks away from the curbing influence of her husband and Pygmalion. The fissure with her husband, a highbrow choreographer named Gastón (Gabriel García Bernal) allows her to concoct a devious ploy in which she seduces her way back to the child. In the end, she gets things her way but by this point, we are so carried away by the film’s mesmerizing blend of music, image, and dance that a resolution seems almost superfluous.
Opening with a shot of a traffic light burning in the night, followed by a backtracking dolly that reveals the title character, with her signature slick-back dyed hair, wearing a welder mask and carrying a flamethrower. Ema, more than a conventional three-act drama, resembles a long dream sequence in the style of Bi Gan’s bewitching Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018), or better yet, a protracted music video. The first half-hour of the film consists of a montage in which snippets of Ema’s broken life following the abandonment of her son are crosscut with a dance performance in which she and Gastón’s avant-garde dance company move to the deep bass lines of Nicolás Jaar’s ambient score in front of a rear-projected sun changing from green to red to blue.
As the movie measuredly moves beyond the melancholy mood of its setup, regular scenes of dialogue alternate with dance sequences in which Ema and her coterie of dancers twist and twirl to the beat of reggaeton tracks (also produced by Jaar, under the pseudonym E$tado Unido) and erotic montages in which she jumps from the one character’s bed to the next. Symmetrical close-ups against 2D backgrounds rendered in shallow focus; wide-angled tracking shots taken in a stylised, urban space in slo-mo; sequences that work metaphorically rather than serving any immediate narrative purpose; pastel colors, neon-hues, frames drenched in red, green, blue, and pink appear throughout the movie. Larraín deploys techniques that one would expect in a Bad Bunny videoclip rather than in an arthouse film and that, together, create a mise-en-scène working at a level of direct affect.
All of this contributes to the character of Ema herself, who—with her knack for pyromania, street garb, and protean sexuality—seems to be the embodiment of an idea or a force, an enigmatic and sensual apparition. Dionysian is an adjective that could be easily misused, but in her case I don’t think there is a better word. Like Dionysus, she is an agent of chaos and unbridled desire that, if resisted, can bring destruction. At the same time, she is also a vehicle of catharsis, of rebirth and regeneration. She is reminiscent of the Visitor in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968)—a film inspired by Euripides’s classic tragedy The Bacchae, in which a mysterious young man takes an Italian bourgeois family by storm, revealing to them all the hang-ups that make their lives miserable.
It is not the first time that Larraín has “parasitically” appropriated the language of another medium. In his other films, however, the use of other aesthetics and video formats, though certainly serving a mimetic purpose, most of all called attention to the seductive power of images in general (and television, in particular). In his Jacqueline Onassis biopic, Jackie (2016), Larraín interspersed his narrative with black-and-white excerpts of a giggling and naive Natalie Portman chaperoning a TV crew through the White House which, in their staginess, highlight how everything about the former First Lady, from the attire to her manner of speech, was part of a deliberate attempt at crafting a persona. Likewise, in No (2012), advertising is portrayed as the real driver of Augusto Pinochet’s defeat in the 1988 referendum, and also as the Trojan horse of a new regime that is perhaps even more pervasive and threatening: consumer capitalism.
In Ema, the borrowing of the exhibitionist, in-your-face aesthetics of reggaeton music videos is not self-reflexive or critical, far from it. In an emblematic scene—which would run the risk of coming off as didactic were it not for Gabriel García Bernal’s delivery—Gastón goes on a long rant in which he lashes out at the narcotic and objectifying implications of reggaeton as a music genre. “Don’t rebel, don’t think, just give it to me, give it to me,” he sings mockingly to the beat of an imaginary reggaeton tune. As soon as he is done with this bout of condescension though, he is confronted by perhaps the feistiest of Ema’s supporting cast of queer, polyamorous street dancers. This character, who earlier had called out Gastón for being a crowd-pleaser, has no use for his Apollonian ideas.
After this peroration the film, unsurprisingly, explodes into its longest set-piece. Images of Ema, accompanied by her retinue of flashy-jogger wearing maenads dancing through the colorful cityscape of El Valparaíso alternate with images of having her hair dyed or manning her signature flamethrower…It is thanks to the choreography of these enthralling moments that what could have been a schematic and bloodless drama about a manipulative young woman pursuing her desire at all cost turns out to be a mesmerizing cinematic experience that lures the viewer into wanting to participate in Ema’s operation of creative destruction. Unsettling yet enticing like its heroine, Ema is a film that seethes with the raw energy of bodies moving in unison to torch the world in order to make it anew.