Ema is inextricable from impulse. When we meet her (Mariana Di Girolamo) in Pablo Larraín’s latest film, she is kinetic—leading her husband Gaston’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) dance troupe, the loose center of a mass of bodies paroxysming to Nicolas Jaar’s teeming, steaming EDM, the big wall behind them a video of a broiling, looming star in close-up—and she rarely stops moving thereafter.
Likewise, Ema begins with catharsis: A traffic signal engulfed in flame, far past the point of its stoplights blinking legibly. Just a ball of fire dangling from government property. We learn that Ema’s days practicing her husband’s choreography in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso become nights in which she, festooned with a flamethrower left over from one of his botched performance pieces, sneaks into the streets to burn down the symbols of civilized order. She gets off on blasting pyroplasm into the twilight sky, and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong frames Girolamo, phallic fire erupting from her torso, as one would a prophet at the end of the world. Or a supervillain. Or a god inseminating the cosmos. Her work speaks for itself: There’s that traffic light popping, a swing set smoldering, a statue bust of some politician curdling, a car churning with the kind of anger only napalm can manifest—the industrial lights of the harbor shining always just at the coast, limning Ema’s acts of anarchy with a beatific horizon. Larraín’s images reach mythic proportions. Yeah, we get it. Burning it all to the ground is in our blood. Annihilation is our birthright and our destiny.
But fueling Gaston’s latest performance piece and Ema’s incendiary nights is the grief they share. They’re haunted by their choice to return their foster son, Polo (Cristián Suárez), to the State after he set Ema’s sister’s (Susana Hidalgo) face on fire, scarring her horribly. Some would insist it’s an accident, others wouldn’t—Gaston reminds Ema, as their relationship disintegrates, that she pushed all kinds of boundaries with Polo, undressing in front of the six-year-old and even putting her nipple in his mouth. Ema reminds Gaston that he is an “infertile pig,” a walking “condom,” that they wouldn’t have had to adopt in the first place if his sperm weren’t useless. If his body, so unlike hers, wasn’t failing. This is his fault.
He’s older than her by 12 years, a generational difference, and she no longer wants to dance the old-fashioned way he wants her to dance. Instead, she wants reggaeton—flanked by a small army of her young and lithe fellow dancers, she tells Gaston that reggaeton is the real music of the port, not his folksy avant garde stuff that’s still tied to the old Chile, to dictatorship and authoritarianism and control. Though her husband hardly represents The Man, he is a man, and so he won’t ever understand the liberation reggaeton provides Ema. The music gives her agency over her body, a powerful entity she only begins to wield as their marriage flounders. Gaston, perhaps because he still remembers the old Chile, argues that reggaeton is not the music of freedom, but the music of prisons. The beat of metal bars and unthinking compulsion betrays all deeper thought, keeps the oppressed classes deluded to the tools of their oppression. Larraín and Armstrong, in turn, film much of Valparaiso as a jailyard, the basketball courts and football pitches and cement city parks where Ema and her cohorts dance surrounded by the edifices of low-cost living and class stratification. Both Ema and Gaston are right, probably, but his body isn’t on the line like hers is.
Ostensibly, Ema revels in the pulling down of walls, insistent on stripping away the artifice of civility and systemic conservatism. “Family”: This is a word to be taken apart, to be pulled at its roots. So, as Ema and Gaston try to move on from their trauma, Ema takes more and more drastic measures to feel out the limits of her control. She begins an affair with her divorce lawyer (Paola Giannini), a woman who desperately clings to Ema’s affection; she begins an affair with a firefighter (Santiago Cabrera) who shows up to put out the car she’s set on fire—a firefighter who also happens to be married to her divorce lawyer, with whom, we gradually realize, he’s adopted Polo without any knowledge of what happened before. She gives Gaston “permission” to sleep with her friend, another dancer in his troupe, but then storms into the room to remove her naked friend from bed and retake her husband. More and more the contours of Ema’s ability to manipulate every relationship—including casual sex with some of her fellow dancers—comes into relief, and a broader scheme takes shape. (Turns out a grand reimagining of the domestic unit sure looks a lot like good ol’ late-20s solipsism.)
Regardless, Ema’s attraction, her pull, is undeniable. We get why people are so transfixed by her—partly because she can intuit what they want and give it to them (for the lawyer, it’s the feeling of being desired; for the firefighter, it’s the feeling of being masculine; for Gaston, it’s fatherhood), and partly because she is that giant fireball behind Gaston’s troupe at the beginning of the film. Girolamo isn’t simply commanding, she sublimates, staring directly into the camera—into whomever—and striking something insecure. Bernal’s eyes betray how clearly Gaston feels unsafe around Ema, even as he’s berating her. They both know how dangerous her self-discovery could be for those in her orbit.
Larraín isn’t much into subtext—an early shot of Gaston and Ema curled up crying on an empty race car bed, Polo’s, doesn’t exactly leave room for emotional interpretation—but the inertia of his images more than carry the film’s dramatic weight. He contextualizes Ema’s body within locomotion, always the center of countless vignettes of her crew exploring one simple, driving beat after another. On the streets (or balconies, or courts, or docks) of Valparaíso as feverishly as in the beds of Valparaíso, where bisexual lighting illuminates a lot of coitus—so many sweating bodies entangled—she leads her friends’ liberation from the stifling artistic rigor Gaston’s choreography represented. Under a helmet of slicked-back, bleached blonde hair, like David Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Ema inhabits monochrome tracksuits with aerodynamic aplomb. Hers is a body fundamentally opposed to stasis; reggaeton is her salvation. When she is only walking, her gestures look preternatural. She is the mother of this universe, and her energy will one day burn so brightly it will extinguish itself into nothing, taking everything with it. Larraín captures that energy. It can feel invigorating. Necessary even.
Rarely can he harness it, though. Amidst all the conflagration, Larraín seems to want to say something sincere about motherhood: What it means, where it begins and ends, to what extent it’s political. Ema is his eighth feature and, following Jackie, feels like the work of a revitalized filmmaker sure of his abilities, ready to build something new. Ready to explore familiar themes—especially how guilt can be a power for mythmaking—with an eye towards the light. He still has no clear thought beyond devastation, though. Maybe Ema doesn’t either. Ema can be described as a “bisexual” film, but Larrain’s gaze is, while not exactly heterosexual, noticeably male—at least to the extent that I can’t help but feel his face is Gael Garcia Bernal’s, a nobly aging visage he holds in close-up for longer than any other, concerned and confused and afraid at the end of the film. Gaston can’t quite wrap his head around everything that Ema has done. I know how he feels. Bernal’s face is mine too, quietly terrified, staring dumbly into nothing. Ema’s destruction isn’t a means to an end. It’s an end. And we’re scared she’s right: We are infertile pigs. This is all our fault.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writers: Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Moreno, Guillermo Calderón
Starring: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera, Josefina Fiebelkorn, Giannina Fruttero, Paula Luchsinger, Catalina Saavedra
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer, editor and infertile pig. You can follow him on Twitter.