Biweekly Binge: The psychosomatic allure of Ema
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Ema, streaming on MUBI
Pablo Larrain just wants to watch the world burn. In the opening scene of his new film Ema, we see a traffic light on fire and the camera pans out, revealing multiple blocks and all the other lights showing red. We then see Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) with a fuel tank pinned to her back, flame thrower in hand, watching it burn. It's now a behind-the-shoulder shot and all the lights turn green.
Ema, and in turn Larrain, grapple with questions of sexuality, free-spirited expression, art and freedom. This is the tale of a dancer couple who adopt a son and for various reasons – lack of genuine interest in nurturing, the toxicity of relationship, and the violence – give him away. The arsonist in Ema is her own therapy, the green signal for her own annunciation. The rest of the film is about Ema trying to get her son back, pushing Gaston's (Gael Garcia Bernal, Larrain's eternal muse taking a backseat here) conservative ideas away, and coming to terms with her own vocabulary for expression.
Di Girolamo's physicality is the bedrock on which Ema is choreographed. Hers is an extremely physical and moving performance, not just with dance but also with her hands and eyes, a persuasive concoction that can be both eloquent and violent. Her hair almost white and unoriginal, not giving its real colour away, just like Ema doesn't give away much about herself.
Ema and her companions break out of Gaston's troupe and fall for reggaeton, the dancehall influences contributing to the psychotropic sensuality of Larrain's luminous film bathed in blue, black and red. It is their only way to weather the pain and loss - for Ema, the loss of her son. Gaston screams, "You're dancing to this shitty music, it is prison music and only gives you an illusion of freedom." But that's where Ema finds herself, something that frees her enough to explore the possibilities in new relationships, toxic or otherwise, and if she could even resurrect the lost ones. "The orgasm can be danced," says one of Ema's partners to Gaston, almost as a scornful remark, knowing exactly where it would hurt.
The winding landscape in Ema stands as a physical tribute to the course of events in the film. The sloping labyrinthine streets of Valparaíso reflect the mood and trajectory of Ema, Larrain's aerial shots of maze-like neighbourhoods adding to the convoluted structure that is already Ema's life. We see scenes of Ema and her sisterhood of dancing bohemians walking uphill till about two-thirds of the film and once her motivations, and her mind, are clear, she walks downhill at a brisk pace with much ease.
Ema is frugal with dispensing information and the child who was given back doesn't get a decent amount of screen time. Not that it matters. She hires and then befriends a lawyer, to divorce Gaston, and begins a torrid affair with a firefighter. Ema is a film that doesn't enjoy binaries, only using it to express the state of mind – the flamethrower in the dark and the firefighter's water hose in the day. Otherwise, Ema flirts with everything and is a celebration of non-binary, the group experimenting with everything from their form of dance to their sexuality and by the end, the very concept of family and domesticity. Ema's pyromania, both physical and metaphysical, dispenses fresh voltage to the meaning of polyamory.
All relationships in Ema are equally tense, some more tension-filled than others, some more abusive than others. "I like the mess, the twisted power it has," says one of the dancers. Every conversation possesses different versions of somatic aura – between Gaston and Ema, Ema and her friends, Ema and the lawyer, Ema and the firefighter, Larrain subsuming all of them in an orgy of independence. There is even a sexually-charged scene between Ema and the principal of a school where she is applying for work. Ema expects an unimaginative orthodox whom she has to impress with restraint and explain her poor track record but she gets a counterculture flower child, talking about dating a famous artist she cannot name and having to put on a facade of dictatorship to do her job. "Artistes are so intense", she tells Ema, who can only offer an unknowing twinkle in her eye but no doubt winking within herself. The principal says that Ema must take an examination to get the job. She is asked to draw a house and the examiner wonders why there are no people inside, why there is no food on the table. That's Pablo Larrain's working apparatus in Ema – how far he can stretch art and challenge the status quo. At the end of the test, Ema asks, "Is there a test for honesty?" That's all there is to it. Maybe we can get by with brutal honesty on all fronts. The dancing skills of Di Girolamo is the gravy.