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October 22, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Ema


Pablo Larrain - 2019
Music Box Films

Ema the film and Ema the title character are both unclassifiable. The film begins as a domestic drama, has a major dance set-piece about midway, finally resolving (maybe) the several messy relationships that are part of Ema's orbit. The opening shot is of a street light on fire. Later it is understood that this was the work of Ema with a flame thrower. The shot encapsulates the self-contradictions of the character. The small fires that Ema starts are always controlled, always confined to a limited space. Yet, Ema does refuses to be controlled by anything outside herself, be it laws, social codes, or other people.

Even the conversations only provide partial information. Taking place in Valparaiso, Ema and her husband, choreographer Gaston, are seeing their own relationship deteriorate following their returning of their adopted son to child services. The seven year old boy, Polo, had lit a fire burning Ema's sister's face, as well as locking a cat in the freezer. And yet, Ema wants to reclaim Polo. Gaston is creating a dance piece based based in part of folklorico, using both trained and "street" dancers. Gaston in accused of being a cultural tourist. Ema leaves with her small gang of female friends to dance to reggaeton in a neighborhood park. There is cultural snobbery as Gaston calls reggaeton "prison music". While hiding her role in setting a car ablaze, Ema the fire starter begins a relationship with the fireman, Anibal, who extinguishes the flames. Every relationship is combustible.

Ema is basically a showcase for actress Mariana Di Girolamo. Ema is a force of nature who refuses to deal with anyone else other than her own terms. Ema almost invents herself with her combed back, platinum hair, ears pierced with what look like long needles, and androgynous appearance. There is a scene with the dancers performing in front of footage of the sun with its solar flares. Ema is like a fiery planet with anyone nearby virtually wilting from the heat. This would include Gael Garcia Bernal as Gaston, unable to leave this love-hate relationship.

On the face of it, Ema would seem like an extreme break from Larrain's previous film, Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy immediately after the assassination of President John Kennedy. Both films are centered on female protagonists who respond to in their own ways to the expectations of others. There is the need to control one's own personal narrative, be it on the world stage as in Jackie or within one's own local circle as in Ema. While Jackie, the film and the woman, are both more conventional, Ema and Ema confront the viewer with a challenge. The conflict between "high art" and "low art" is just one way that Larrain confronts alleged points of opposition, viewing the world in terms of a binary framework. Ema's life and expression as an artist is messy, but it is a mess that she acknowledges and comes to terms with.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 22, 2020 07:10 AM