There are two ways to approach Ema: 1. a horror movie, in which a pansexual reggaeton dancer, impulsive anarchist, compulsive incendiary sets out to win her adoptive son back from his new adoptive parents, and she will stop at nothing even if it means disrupting the family structure as we know it and hold so sacred; 2. an erotic drama about a reggaeton dancer trying to cope up with the aftermath of a rash decision that turned her family upside down, and now she is trying to take control of her life and sexuality in the process of finding redemption.
And oh it is a dance movie too.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain does not impose any of those ideas on the audience. In fact, he lets the character of the protagonist take the center stage, and it is by exploring the dichotomies, impulses, desires of the character that he builds the case for both the approaches to the movie. Ema’s character drives the story. Her actions, reckless, dangerous, liberating and unpredictable as they are, lend and justify the movie its airs. I cannot remember any scene in the movie where Ema is not present. That is perhaps because Mariana di Girolamo is a force to reckon with, and if she wasn’t in a scene, I cannot remember it. Her portrayal of Ema sits on the character’s skin like a leotard — she takes the shape of the character. She does not miss a single beat. Her performance is as much evinced from her face as from the rest of her body, and that is exactly what an actor is supposed to do when playing a performer who is solely reliant on her body to express emotions as well as someone who is on a sexual journey to find herself. And boy does she use her physicality to dominate every single frame she is in. The confidence and lucidity with which she moves, although it eludes her speech earlier in the movie, gradually becomes her persona even when she is off stage.
One of the problems with Ema being such a hypnotic character is that every other character in the movie gravitates towards her, like a moth towards a flame. After a point, it becomes really difficult for the audience to feel concerned about anyone else besides Ema. When we follow Ema as she executes her seemingly sinister plan to infiltrate the lives of the couple and pry back her son, there is a sense of horror, but it is the kind of horror that does not give us the creeps because we are not looking through the eyes of the victims here. It is the kind of fear we identify subconsciously with as we egg on Ema to see the end of this machiavellian plan and descend further into darkness. Even the fear that we should be feeling for the couple is highjacked by Ema. To see it positively, Ema’s magnetism affects beyond the screen.
The only character that stands up to Ema is her partner and choreographer Gaston, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. He is snobbish, controlling but also loving and when needed reasonable. They are the perfect match, not remotely because they have things in common, but because they can both get under the other’s skin and go deeper to touch the soul. They complement each other. Bernal plays Ema’s other half perfectly. However, when it comes to Gaston being a choreographer, I just can seem to buy it. Maybe Bernal can dance in real life, but in the movie, I don’t get that dancer vibe from Gaston as I do from Ema. That is perhaps my one major complaint.
I am not a fan of reggaeton (I prefer reggae) and I did sort of feel like a snob watching the movie and thinking how I consciously avoid listening to not just reggaeton but a lot of other music that I consider “inferior” to or “less sophisticated” than the kind on my playlist (however, Ema’s soundtrack has made it to my palylist — baby steps). I felt like Garcia’s character. I felt a bit uncomfortable of this divide I have created. This brings us to another aspect of Ema. The movie isn’t just a character study of this enigmatic person, it is about Chile, its culture, its economic and social divide (the snobs and the snubbed, if you may), and to a large extent, it also works as a commentary on the immigration policy (the adoption of an immigrant boy serves as a metaphor, I think) of the Chilean government. I think, Ema stands for Chile. With the portrayal of the flamethrower-weilding, fiercely progressive, anarchist, sexually liberated, polyamorous dancer — yes, a woman can be all that — and a mother Ema, Larrain draws a blueprint for a new Chile. It is a dream for a country that is more open to the LGBTQ rights (Chile already seems to be doing great on that front) and reorganizing social and economic structures that are more liberating, and one that shows restraint on using state coercion on protestors (notice the lack of police on screen despite the frequent acts of arson). It is a blueprint for a new order that a lot of countries can use, including mine. On being represented thus, Ema becomes the fire that cleanses and forges the new and not that brings destruction. This is the second approach to the movie.