As literally as possible, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s latest movie, Ema, takes a flamethrower to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that men create to maintain and women maintain to create. The film’s titular protagonist is hell-bent on burning it all down—life as she knows it, society’s constrictions and ideals, the Chilean metropolis in which she resides. But there is much more to Ema than rote nihilism. Larraín scatters revelations throughout his film so that his plot functions like a trail of breadcrumbs to a finale of renewal and hope. It is at that point that the dark and consistently surprising Ema manages to deliver its biggest shock. This is a movie that exists to turn things on their ears—even itself.
But before that is drama. Ema starts where other stories end. We meet its characters in absolute crisis: Married couple Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) and Gastón (Gael García Bernal) have effectively returned the six-year-old child, Polo, they adopted more than a year ago. Polo, we learn, set Ema’s sister on fire, permanently disfiguring her. But We Need To Talk About Polo this is not—Ema bears the brunt of the blame, from her own husband, even, who is 12 years her senior and the choreographer of her dance troupe. In one of several raw conversations between the seemingly doomed couple, Gastón accuses Ema of abandoning their son. “We abandoned him. It’s our fault,” counters Ema. “Yes, maybe it is. But it’s very hard. It’s so hard because it hurts a lot more, to be abandoned by your mother. Yes, a woman’s betrayal is much harder. Yes... By a bad woman. By a bad mother,” he responds. This scene is part of a larger introduction that includes footage of Gastón’s modern dance company performing in front of an arresting image of a giant sun. Ema hits the ground running and it never stops moving. There’s a great sense of momentum here as we catapult from detail to harrowing detail (Ema, Gastón reveals, put her nipple in Polo’s mouth to which she responds, “He was my son. My son can suck my whole body if he wants.”; the reason they adopted was because of their inability to conceive—she calls her husband an “infertile pig”), all intercut with dance (and a moving camera capturing it) and set to revered Chilean-American musician Nicolas Jaar’s tempestuous score. The pacing is breakneck and never lets up. Ema comes as close as a film can to putting G force on a viewer’s body.
Ema is awfully operatic for a movie about dancing. Her husband is hardly the only person to ostracize her for supposedly abandoning the child she adopted—Ema teaches dance at a grade school (which Polo had attended) and during a meeting her colleagues voice their disdain for her perceived selfishness. In the language of melodrama, Ema is a fallen woman, but she refuses to let that get her down. In what initially appears to be an unraveling, she abandons her job, leaves Gastón, starts setting things on fire, street dances to reggaeton with members of her troupe, begins an affair with the married fireman who responds to one of her conflagrations, seduces a divorce attorney (a woman), and starts fucking basically everyone. If this were madness, one could reasonably say there is a method to it—like everything in this film, the explanation of Ema’s ultimate plan dribbles out slowly. As she tells the fireman (an impossibly hunky Santiago Cabrera): “When you know what I’m doing and why, you will be horrified.” But her behavior is imbued with the sense of liberation—Ema is leaning into the “bad woman” label slapped on her. “Fuck society,” she seems to be saying until the nuances of her plan reveal that she’s out to fuck society...as we know it. It’s hardly a surprise when during an interview for another job at a school late in the movie, Ema is asked what she likes to teach and she responds, “Freedom.” This takes on yet another layer of meaning as things progress, as Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s script is an endless font of insights.
Under a slicked-back helmet of dyed blonde hair that’s a mullet’s kissing cousin, Di Girólamo plays Ema with the mystique of the Cheshire cat. She is can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her charismatic, and yet routinely inscrutable. Beyond the general idea of liberation, her motivation for each strategic move is often opaque. We see her saddled with grief for the son that she can no longer take care of, but also willing to plunge herself into situations of mind-clearing hedonism, like a topless lesbian orgy to which she takes her older attorney. A stunning third-reel sequence finds Ema fucking with abandon in a bed with white sheets under a blue light. Every time the scene cuts, she’s depicted with a different sex partner from the pool that she has amassed up to that point—one sex scene, same bed, several bodies. It’s an incredible and economic way to depict how a multi-partner lifestyle functions. Even more impressive—the single best shot in the film, in my opinion—is the image of her riding a bus after fucking the married fireman for the first time. It would be a static shot, if not for the bus’s jostling, and on her face is a completely mystifying look, as her head leans against the window. Her half-shut eyes bespeak fatigue, but her mouth appears to be slightly upturned, almost smug. What is she thinking? Is she happy with the way things are going for her? Does she miss the stability of the life she’s actively torpedoing? Does she even know? Is it all of the above and more?
Di Girólamo is as magnetic as her character. Ema is the kind of personality that you can never know too much about. For as much as she shows, she leaves you wanting more. Her ability to seduce just about everyone she encounters on sight places her in the realm of the femme fatale, but for as fatalistic as she appears, it is her resolve for living that makes her so alluring. In Ema, the phrase “lust for life” is made literal.