Portrayed by Mariana Di Girolamo, the titular anti-heroine of Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s eighth feature film, Ema, is a force of nature — or at least, she has the compulsion to become one. She is a dancer in an interpretive collective choreographed by her husband Gastón (Larraín regular Gael García Bernal), but the couple is reeling after returning their adopted son Polo to social services, and a regretful Ema is determined to get him back. Her single-minded mission, as Larraín depicts it, has the propensity to make for infuriating viewing, but a spectator willing to click into this enigmatic parable will find at its heart the very human experience of striving to transcend yet falling short.
We perceive ourselves as creatures with souls — those being formless, divine entities of grace and intent. What thwarts us, what drives us to melancholy and despair, is the bodies through which we must express those limitless souls. Our bodies are clumsy and prone to failure, damage and illness — they can never fully convey our inner thoughts and emotions, however we may strive to communicate physically. We attempt acts which resemble grace in an attempt to achieve it, as Ema and her contemporaries might with the fluid, instinctive movements of their dance routines. Ema represents that eternal struggle between what is heavenly within us and what is earthly, and she makes choices that she hopes might manifest that transcendent, structureless way of being. Ema is impulsive in her decision to adopt Polo, a reaction against the perceived indignity of Gastón’s infertility — the undesirable failure of a human body foils divine purpose — but neither parent is cut out for childcare, which leads to chaos and trauma before the child is given up. Ema cannot abide that unfulfilled desire or need for motherhood, and her plan to get Polo back transgresses social, sexual and legal boundaries that the heavenly creature within need pay no heed to.
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This is not to condemn Ema with delusions of grandeur — in fact, the crux at the heart of the film’s success is in wondering whether the apprehension, resistance and retribution that she faces actually belies the unenlightened perspective with which the rest of us are burdened. The trail that Ema leaves behind her is not necessarily one of victims, but one of dupes. Gliding across the screen, fashionably tracksuited and sporting a shock of blonde, Brylcreemed hair, Di Girolamo lifts Ema onto a plane of existence she does not seem to share with those around her. Her performance is elusive and unpredictable in its moods and responses, but it is never cold — Ema is warm, expressive and filled with feeling. She does not regard those around her with disdain, only with anguish that they cannot join her.
Frustration and communication come to the fore when Ema settles into scenes of dialogue, composed elliptically in a screenplay by Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno. Whether the omnipresent Ema is speaking with an exasperated, manipulative Gastón, or her possessive mother, or the vengeful social worker who has taken on Polo’s case, words are exchanged which glance on the sides of each other — no suggestion is met with a full response, instead diverted into a fresh offering of wisdom or insult. There’s agitation in the fixed mid-shots making up these scenes, glaring in their immobility when contrasted against moments of ethereal beauty and fluent choreography propelled by a rumbling, ominous electronic score from composer Nicolas Jaar. Ema’s need to keep moving, to sweep up those around her into a purposeful charge ahead, and her failure to do so, are palpable.
Sex and its depiction within Ema touches intimately on this war between the body and the soul. In order to win Polo back, Ema separately seduces both of his new adopted parents — lawyer Raquel (Paola Giannini) and firefighter Aníbal (Santiago Cabrera). Her open approach to sexuality disrupts the conventional harmony of the new family, yet equally interrogates the audience’s relationship to the act. In sex, we anticipate euphoria, cohesion, even enlightenment, but are instead often met with tactility, awkwardness and mess, both in the moment and its aftermath. Ema brings discomfort and uncertainty not only to Raquel and Aníbal, but also to Gastón through her almost four-dimensional perception of this knotty, Oedipal family dynamic and its incompatibility with established social convention.
The finer details of Ema’s plot are intricate and in many ways hinge on the unexpected to make their fullest impact. But as with its lead character, the film finds its power in rising above the maelstrom of personal politics and illuminating the beauty in the formlessness of human conscience. The most effective stretches of Ema allow narrative to fall away into a non-linear collage of past and present — fragments of context that build up a picture of Ema’s state of mind. In these moments, reminiscent of the most memorable aspects of Larraín’s previous feature Jackie (2016), visual metaphor conveys what dialogue cannot. The recurring motif of fire is tied inextricably to Ema herself — a thing of beauty, unrestricted by form and with the power to both nurture and destroy. It’s almost like Ema is jealous of fire, or longs to become it, expressing that fetishised freedom as much in nights spent spraying blowtorches into the air as in her anarchic refusal to stick to the rules and limitations others would look to impose.
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Much of the appeal of Ema, though, is in its elusiveness and unknowability. Larraín’s lead character is bristling with personality and desire, yet she is equally deployable as a cypher for our own anxieties and traumas based around living life with limits. There’s catharsis in seeing Ema transgress, even to carry out acts we would outwardly disapprove of, and to do so while moving with grace and purpose and looking magnificent only amplifies the appeal. Ema is a challenge to the walls we build around ourselves, to the baggage we leave behind for our children and the folly of the damage we can do to each other. We live in a real world, colliding and conflicting, but Ema invites us to consider what is waiting above and beyond.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.