Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera
Pablo Larraín’s most well-known features of the last decade have all delved into the past and into politics, be that through the lens of activism (2012’s No) or personal trauma (2016’s Jackie). Now, the Chilean returns to the present for this fierce portrait of combustible urban life in his home country. The political eye hasn’t closed, however. Here he contends a direct link between sexual politics and cultural identity.
It opens with perhaps its defining image; a blazing stop sign. We track out slowly to find Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) standing there, holding a flamethrower. In this moment Larraín presents us a summary of at lease some of his central themes; kicking against authority, and the scorching passion of youth, class and femininity.
Ema is a dancer. Her marriage to choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is on the rocks, following their bungled attempt to adopt troubled child Polo (Christián Suárez), now ward of the state for his own pyromania. Ema presents a patchwork portrait of their lives together. The opening stretch is particularly lithe. As Ema and her fellow dancers move before a gigantic image of a blazing sun, we dip here and there into the recent past as Larraín sketches in the details. In the process telling us that his titular Ema will be his focus.
Sexual identity becomes key. Ema is bisexual. Liberated. She uses her sexuality to define herself within society. Larraín suggests that such liberation is, in itself, a movement. A defining characteristic of Chilean youth. Her preoccupation with dancing to Reggaeton is an extension of this, with it’s sexually suggestive dance moves and repetitive rhythms.
Gastón, older than her by 12 years, doesn’t fully understand this obsession. He is more reserved, more conservative in his outlook. He is infertile and has, in Ema’s words, “those typical male dilemmas”. An impassioned speech of his against Reggaeton belays his own frustration with a sexually liberated generation that he feels threatened by. Perhaps he wants to be a part of it, but feels locked out.
The central couple spar throughout. After a time there’s a weary banality to this. As though we’re checking in on a strange episode of Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer that happens to be interspersed with dance numbers, graphic sex scenes and acts of civic vandalism. Ema is saved from the humdrum by its own nimbleness. The trifecta talents of cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, editor Sebastián Sepúlveda and composer Nicolas Jaar lift the film onto it’s tiptoes. It is at its best when it feels swept along like it’s protagonist, caught on the crest of a euphoric beat. Though this is not the case all of the time. The second hour struggles to keep the pace. No dance party can last forever.
Larraín is quite justly captivated by rising star Di Girolamo. She blazes here, and not just with that flamethrower. Around half an hour into the picture Ema is seen dancing on a sea wall at dusk, looking out over a bay. It is as though her dance is a provocation to the twinkling city on the other side of the water. She squares off against it, proud. With her friends, Ema prowls the city by night with her flamethrower. Burn in order to purge. Fire hose as reclaimed phallus. Semen as a destructive force. One might argue Ema reconstitutes machismo posturing, re-configuring it with her own feminine physicality. Her fires are an expression of this.
A bar scene shows the unabashed radicalism in another form. Ema and her female friends hit on the male bartender. While Ema is their ringleader, they all reach over the bar to smell his scent. The bartender is bashful. People will see. What we’re shown is a changing dynamic. This aspect of the film is far more interesting than the domestic trivialities between Ema and Gastón. Perhaps that’s the point. Kitchen sink drama is what’s on offer, what’s familiar, but a liberated agenda has come prancing through the door with it, to the beat of a steel drum.