Chilean cinema is having a moment, spearheaded by the rise of directors Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio. EMA (2019)is Larraín’s latest effort, coming a few years after his 2016 double whammy of experimental biopics, Neruda and Jackie, brought him to new heights of international acknowledgement. EMA is a notch below those masterpieces, but it’s a bold and unconventional movie regardless, showcasing Larraín as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest masters of the character study.
EMA centers on a relationship breaking down. Ema is played by Mariana Di Girolamo, in a committed performance, and her husband is played by Gael García Bernal, who is excellent as always. As a couple they are able to love each other and hate each other, and even within the same scene it can appear to be both. They have a calm, evil anger to their confrontations. The first act depicts their breakdown, through a broken narrative structure that juxtaposes a dance of silhouettes with their heartbroken reality. They have returned an adopted child and fear they cannot love. It is a symphony of invisible masks, as the film plays their pain under layers of artifice. This is not MARRIAGE STORY (2019), this is a fantastical, abstract, genre-bending depiction of a family unit breaking down.
EMA is a passionate and physical movie. Dancing becomes liberation, an attempt to move freely through the world. There’s a lot of reggaeton dancing in EMA, and it is always executed with precision. The film lingers on images and abstract dance moves. The characters dance for the sun and dance in the dark. A dance montage in the film’s second half is the most compelling fusion of sound and visuals, in sync like perfect lovers. Ema is physical through sexual metaphors as well as dancing. Ema herself appears to live life orgasm to orgasm. The intensity of her sex is like a dance of its own. Larraín’s style prioritises aesthetic, with stylish lighting over all the film’s free love and bisexuality. The writhing, overwhelming naked bodies are part of the passion that takes over the characters and the filmmaking. The characters are all pretentious, whether through academic analysis or street-smart sexual philosophy, but that perfectly matches the film. It’s all a sham, and love and sex and feelings are all that really matter.
EMA is a film that pulls the rug out from under its audience at semi-regular intervals. For the characters, it presents an opportunity to restore balance by the end. Yet life and the film have been carefully choreographed as part of a grand plan. EMA is about a complex and painful game played passionately. The titular lead is an enigmatic personality, but we can discern enough to understand her quirks. She wants to be a mother, to an extreme degree, and looks for love and forgiveness in a messy world.
EMA is a film that tells us little but rewards us with the ideas and intricacy that Larraín brings to the film. It is a film about the experience of watching it. The haunting, echoing score ricochets over scenes and adds an emotional layer to them. Larraín’s formal skill in his recent work brings complexity to his films in different ways. In Neruda, he made a meta-film. In Jackie, he channelled everything through performances of performances of performances. Yet in EMA, it is the music that brings the rigidity to the physical. The film is built around its music, and the carefully planned plot wraps around it so well.
EMA is a confident work from an assured director. It is filled with images of fire and intimacy. These metaphors are powerful. Whilst the plot details are hazy and more calculated in hindsight, it is the power of the experience that makes EMA intensely watchable. The sound and the endless moving bodies make for something hypnotic. It may not be entirely smooth sailing, but EMA is fiercely original and superbly crafted.