Ema Pablo Larrain (Chile; 2019) Mariana Di Girolamo, Santiago Cabrera.
Viewed Mubi Streaming 3 May 2020 during the Great Plague.
Sign of the times
Girl Power is the key note of Larrain’s movie ‘Ema’, which is set in his native Chile but like girl power movies in general involves a lot of shots of the protagonist Ema looking directly into or towards camera with an affect image, a sort of pout into which we might read anything, but into which we are likely to read a sense self rightiousness. Although set in Chile, Larrain’s movie could have been made in any country with a Western cultural background as it plays out its convoluted and sometimes tortuous scenario.
Confusion is characteristic Pablo Larrain’s film, confused state of minds, that in many respects reflects the times: gender/sex confusion, male-female role confusion; political confusion and climate anxiety. Larrain’s movie exploits confusion to create a series of dramatic images: ‘Ema’ has a little bit of everything: groovy modern dance, fire; lots of sex AC/DC; girls with fun earrings and cunilinctus; disputed child custody; targetted seduction and a claim by the hero, Ema, to be evil.
And this claim to be ‘evil’, made in an intimate exchange with her new lover, the fireman, epitomises the vacuous nature of Larrain’s movie. Ema says she is evil…. but she might as well be saying she is dyspeptic or Sagittarian for all the difference it makes. Her line is just a line, words in a script, a pose that is inconsequential and empty, an outward display.
‘Ema is a film that exploits image for effect and affect without shame. In this too ‘Ema’ is of course very much a film of its time. It has nothing to say and serves notice only of its desire for fame and fortune, at any cost to be noticed.
‘Ema’ opens with our eponymous hero having fun with a flame thrower. Standing in the middle of the street directing her stream of fire at the overhead intersection traffic lights. The traffic lights perhaps symbolise the male ordering of the world, a world where public life is regimented by cars and their control systems, a world she wants to destroy or simply impress her rage upon, by pissing fire on it. ‘Ema’ is regularly punctuated with Ema’s use of fire as destructive force. But I don’t think Ema’s use of fire endorses her claim to be evil, even in the movie’s own disoriented terms. In classic psychiatry fire razing often relates to some forms of sexual dysfunction, but classic psychiatry is not fashionable these days. More probably its symbolic use here implies the idea of destroying the past, the idea of taking control of life through elemental intervention.
However viewing ‘Ema’ these ideas don’t sit easily with the film. They are not grounded in Ema herself or in the material of the movie; rather the use of fire seems simply played out as spectacle a gratuitous gimmick to sell the movie. Looks good on the poster; in the trailer.
The opening half of the movie is punctuated by elaborate dance numbers. The dances are played out and filmed as referents to energy, body power, freedom. These qualities resonate with Ema’s persona: funky woman, and uninhibited. But trying to stretch a practice dance leotard over Ema’s varied intentions, the garment simply splits. The dance is simply another distraction, a spectacle.
There are attempts to integrate the dance into the scenario: Ema’s break up with the impotent choreographer with whom she has adopted a little boy – she rejects him as a lover and as an artistic director. But this narrative strand simply goes flaccid, there’s nothing left to dance out. It’s in competition with too much else – the pack of girl power digressions – the seduction of the fireman who is the new adopting father of the little boy. The scripted machinations multiply relentlessly, until at last Ema embraces a biological destiny of pregnancy and motherhood, finally taking her place amongst her enlarged family group of lovers and a lover’s wife and adopted child.
The last shot of Larrain’s film is particularly dishonest. We see a medium shot of Ema at a gas station filling up a gerrycan of gasoline, the fuel for her toy flame thrower. For all Ema’s primping and pouting Larrain’s script simply leads Ema into a dead end. But like Ema, Larrain wants to have it both ways: tight and loose. Rebelling against this dead end Larrain has decided to open up the finale to suggestion: that Ema is waiting for ‘Ema 2’ to be financed, or that he is available should Hollywood call. Larrain is saying he can rock and roll as good as LA.