Burn This Way
August 12, 2021
AMID CREPITANT FLAMES and crying gulls, Pablo Larraín’s Ema begins with the same musical device that opened his previous film, Jackie (2016): a glissando, that quivering freefall between two notes ferried by string, synth, or breath. The sound of surrender to momentum, the sliding frequencies of a swoon. Jackie’s blooming glissandi laid a shortcut to intrigue where there was otherwise little, but with composer Nicolás Jaar, Larraín has found a way to spin that sonic texture into the core of his new film. Ema is about many things—a couple’s failed adoption, the special vitriol reserved for unconventional mothers, the way dance can return to a body what it has lost—but mostly, it’s about what happens when a filmmaker withholds familiar structures of time and feeling, yielding sentiment to ambient suspension. Like Rainald Goetz writes on the first page of Rave, his chronophobic drift through ’90s techno: “There I was standing in the middle of the music.”
The middle is an unusual place to find Larraín; his preferred locus is the vanishing point of hindsight, where particulars of the past give way to the speculative fog of mood. From Allende’s autopsy to the plebiscite that unseated Pinochet, Larraín’s films have mostly traced the dense striations of Chile’s political history, guided by an impulse toward crises and their weary survivors. Lately, he has been fixed on iconic mononyms and the fabulists who earned them: Neruda, Jackie, and soon, Spencer (curiously in lieu of Diana). But with Ema, Larraín doesn’t excavate the fraught remains of a star so much as explode a new one from the zeitgeist. We first meet Ema (Mariana di Girólamo), a young company dancer who prefers the open-air pulse of reggaeton, trailing the social worker who helped her adopt the six-year-old boy she briefly parented with Gastón (Gael García Bernal), a choreographer twelve years her senior. Already a figure of dissent, Ema sports a slick, bone-bleached mullet with a barbell in one lobe and a daggerlike piercing in the other. She’s asking after Polo (Cristian Felipe Suarez), the son they gave back, and in response is all but spat the truth: “He’s not your son anymore. Know what you have left? Dyed hair and a shit husband.”
It’s another way of saying motherhood is a test that can be failed, or a credential that can be conferred and taken away. Polo dabbled in arson and animal cruelty before they returned him, but Ema and Gastón are nonetheless locked in the chokehold of public condemnation. At least she’s sustained by her pride of leonine femmes, fellow reggaeton dancers who prowl the sloping coastline of Valparaíso like apex predators, with di Girólamo their peroxide-blonde alpha. Their intimacy is never explained but always on show: At a beachside picnic, they’re gathered in an image of sororal bliss; in the concrete nave of a sprawling warehouse, they help Ema transport flammable contraband with hushed purpose. And, of course, they dance, anywhere their bodies can find room inside the beat, which they liken to another group activity—fucking—shown in the strobelit haze of a house party, still raging as daylight shoots through diaphanous curtains. Against Ema and Gastón’s stilted marriage, heavy with dialogue sharpened by malice, these women model a kinship beyond social convention and its acceptable range of interpersonal touch. Ema delights in this categorical confusion, vesting in a single group of women infinite ways in which their bodies can relate to each other.
Across rooftops, ball courts, and tagged seawalls on the curving shore, Ema and her crew round their hips to Tomasa del Real and Jaar’s pseudonymous E$tado Unido, backdropped by distant shipping cranes or a polychrome cascade of painted houses. Valparaíso was also a key location in Larraín’s Neruda (2016), but largely pictured through interior shots due to its covert subject (the titular poet was hidden there by friends, prior to his regime-evading slip across the Argentine border). With Ema, Larraín and long-time cinematographer Sergio Armstrong amplify the port city’s rousing presence, drawing out an atmospheric density that’s sustained by Jaar’s gliding synths. “It has a rhythm that is everywhere,” Larraín has said of reggaeton. The film is guided by this sense of tactility, the stunning awareness of how a body, like a sound, can transform a space just by moving through it, how an arcing spine or swinging arm can part the air and shift something molecular, leaving an afterglow of motion that this place will continue to hold. The occasional misstep occurs when reggaeton is invoked as a too-neat signifier of the hard and fast “streets,” as in an argument between Gastón and a punkish firebrand from Ema’s troupe. Like the film’s phantasmic irruptions of gushing flame, dance works better as fevered texture than political metaphor.
Maybe it’s redundant to spotlight kineticism in a film about dancing, but the choreography teases a much deeper, stranger physics of desire. Ema moves with a dancer’s need for constant flux and is also the plot’s prime mover, uninterested in the whys of her want and only in taking the steps to fill it. But the film’s narrative stakes are less interesting than the way it seems to ask: What does it mean to move or be moved? In the end, we realize how much the story has been pulled by the gravitational force—nothing so easy as “maternal instinct”—that secures a mother to her child. Larraín first envisioned a much older woman as the lead, but grew the story around di Girólamo after her casting, which might fuel a suspicion that he has merely skimmed the most alluring clichés of queer millennial life, stunned by their neon-lit novelty. But there’s a wildness that works in being moved by something new, and Larraín has managed to build a film out of his thrall to the beauty of a new disorder. There is a word for that particular movement, when one thing tempts another off-path and into its orbit: chaos, or as Larraín might have it, seduction.
— Phoebe Chen
Ema opens in limited release on August 13.