Patrick Preziosi on Pablo Larraín’s ‘Ema’ (2019)
For a better part of the 2010s, director Pablo Larraín made films that shouldered both the historical weight of the Pinochet-era of his native Chile (2010’s Post Mortem, 2012’s No, 2016’s Neruda) and the immediate fallout of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, tethered to his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy (2016’s Jackie). Now four years removed from 2016’s ambitious, transcontinental twofer, the director sets up his newest project, Ema, in contemporary Chile, and swings for multivalent commentary — on one woman affirming her own independence amidst the responsibility of motherhood and other societal expectations — as channelled through movement and the body.
Tempering some of his buzzworthy and overwrought thematic methods while retaining technical proficiency in attention paid to the physical and corporeal, the filmmaker is essentially following in the footsteps of Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018), a film similarly preoccupied with warring notions of youth, conventionality, and identity as captured through dance.
Larraín, however, still can’t resist being in service to a larger, digestible narrative, and since he isn’t as concerned as Noé with whittling away his own cinematic gamesmanship, Ema is story and story first. Any moment of dance is introduced as window dressing to the more neatly delineated attempts of the eponymous Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) to get her recently disowned, adopted son, Polo (Cristián Suárez), back into her life.
The nine-year-old, in the ten months he spent with Ema and her choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), developed into something of a problem child, the last straw being a habit of pyromania instilled in him by his surrogate mother, and resulting in the scorching of her own sister’s face by the boy (later, Ema and Gastón will find a cat stuffed in a freezer, which they also suspect Polo of). Ema desperately wants to be his mother — and Gastón possesses parental inklings, if only not as strong as his wife’s inclination — but has difficulty reconciling his own non-blood relation with her otherwise intense attachment to the child. That Polo suggests less than docile demeanour doesn’t exactly ameliorate the struggling parents’ own hesitations and misgivings.
The chronology of all this may pose initial difficulty for orienting oneself. Larraín’s means of establishment within the film’s first act is vigorous cross-cutting across shuffled events. The one constant throughout the visit to child protective services, the ICU family conversations, the live dance performance, and the opening image of a flame-licked traffic light, is the presence of Ema herself. Even when lost in a group, Larraín’s camera prioritizes her over all else, offscreen only for the inevitable reverse shot — and if not at the forefront of the dancing, the camera pushes its way through to settle upon her.
The audience rides shotgun across Larraín’s scattered toy-box assemblage of practices, domestic spats with Gastón, soirées punctuated with napalm-fueled flamethrower use, lots of sex, elementary school dance classes, and a relatively inscrutable scheme to reacquire Polo. Running everything parallel would suggest a potent subjectivity, if not achieving anything resembling a real-time character study, at least bypassing tired tenets of linearity.
But Ema herself remains an unknowable subject, and nothing about being in her orbit for 110 minutes illuminates much; Larraín too seems perplexed by his protagonist. The jig is already up when he resorts to a CPS social worker spilling everything pertaining to the Polo situation — in the company of Ema, no less — early in the first act, a squirrely means of admitting that the director isn’t interested in the progression of events, but satisfied by their mere existence. Ema’s hackneyed plan to get impregnated by Polo’s new family’s firefighter patriarch coincides with an embrace of Reggaeton, a street-style of dancing that flies in the face of her husband’s chilly academic take on the form, as well as a relationship with a female lawyer who, coincidentally, is overseeing the divorce between Gastón and Ema.
All this is delivered in a morass of lugubrious “arthouse” tricks, a vehicle better equipped for lithe, convulsing bodies and neon-lit coitus than the overarching, elliptical narrative Ema purports to be. The writing’s didacticism defuses any sort of teased-out tension, the building blocks of Ema’s stratagem collapsing into a tidy, expository kissoff near the close.
Not calling attention towards the superficial virtues of Ema, however, would be a disservice to Larraín’s assured visual grammar, an otherwise modest palette which mostly avoids extremes even when housing an ostensibly combustible heroine. Sickly neon is the film’s stock in trade, but scenes victim to such garish lighting are typically flanked by unvarnished, location shooting, setting up a sturdy two poles for Larraín to dangle Ema between. The frequent use of Steadicam is similarly unfussy, never calling attention to the length of certain shots, of which some are impressively timed. Ema is at its best when the camera is absorbed as another moving part; a handful of scenes find Ema and friends dancing Reggaeton on public buses and trams, and the three-tiered planes of pure movement Larraín constructs come as close to why some call this a “dance movie.”
Most elsewhere, Larraín’s approach to Ema’s all-consuming penchant for dance is airless, swallowed up into larger context-importing montages; Climax may have been rife with invisible cuts, but the illusion of one continuous routine in all its divergences remains markedly more thrilling, and all the more so for their narrative independence. Of Ema and her friends’ Reggaeton phase, Gastón lambasts them, all too perfectly spitting, “Someone convinced you moving your little hips would make you freer.” Bernal’s sad-eyed performance looms over Girolamo’s shock of peroxide-blonde hair and fierce indifference, an albatross of crushing, plot-centric weight. And when those moony eyes get even wider as Gastón is emotionally unmoored by divorce proceedings, Larraín does a poor job covering his ass in who his film truly aligns with.
The camera achieves little more than leering in its erotic-striving sex scenes, which are once again flattened by Larraín’s fallback into montage, regardless of how orgiastic they may be. Queer desire is portrayed as something purely carnal — as is almost always the basis for Ema’s numerous relationships with both men and women — only to be enacted if you plan to return to the arms of heteronormativity not long after.
Which Ema does, a result so glaring that no amount of tactics of subversion can properly veil. Her plan succeeds, as she wills a new vision of the nuclear family into being. An affirmation of garden variety tradition isn’t inherently problematic, but Larraín invalidates any sort of self-discovery engendered by Ema’s varying experiences. The explicitness of the sex devolves into ickiness, a facet of shallow titillation rather than representation and sexual fulfilment. Larraín is fascinated by humans’ proclivity for ravenous sex, but only from a prudish remove; it’s made plain the scales are tilted towards a recoupling of Ema and Gastón more than anything else.
If Ema really is willing to throw a new lover of Gastón’s down the stairs to then get into bed with him — and make no mistake: she is — then Larraín has rendered her own arc depressingly circuitous. As a director, Larraín’s got an eye and an ear (inasmuch for the latter that he’s tapped now both Mica Levi and Nicolas Jaar for scores), but at that precise moment of juxtaposed violence and sex, Ema turns to the camera, and her own blankness in expression speaks for the entire film at large.
Ema is now streaming on Mubi in the UK and will open in the US on a yet determined date in the coming months.