Venice 2019 review: Ema (Pablo Larrain)

When you know what I’m doing and why, you will be horrified“, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) says to Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), as if she is saying to us, the audience: be prepared for what is going to happen. The whole film up until that baffling moment near the end consists of a very powerful yet somehow elegant form of diversion, as if Pablo Larrain likes to play with us and our expectations about his moves as well. There is something quite unique about the Chilean director, one of the very few filmmakers of whom you can’t really predict where he is going to lead you with his next project.

Take Ema, for example. You read the synopsis or watch the trailer, but you still can’t be sure what it is about. During the film the experience is possibly even stranger: you feel disoriented but at the same time rewarded by what you see and hear, so you are more than willing to accept that many things at that moment seem out of your reach. Then you insist, finding yourself so immersed you don’t even feel the urge to understand the reasons why some people on the screen are doing what they are doing.

The way Larrain plays with our ideas of what he could deliver, before or during the screening of one of his works, is for sure one of the main strong points of his cinematic prose. He shapes time like no others, compressing or broadening it in order to create an atmosphere which is always beyond linear narration and the necessity to give information. He is so aware of his process that the solution of the riddle in Ema is put in front of us more than once, precisely because he knows we are distracted in a good way by the pace, the characters, and how these two elements are blended.

On many occasions Ema states that she acts instinctively, a verbal expedient, to deceive us yet again by saying the opposite of what she is actually doing. The fact that she is a dancer and the music she dances to is reggaeton makes us believe her, since this style is presented to us like something you must react to, very lively and unplanned, so to speak. This is far from true though: it is actually all meticulously arranged. Ema is so energetic, powerful, independent, irresistible; as if she’s a magnet, one can’t help but get caught in her trap, her fascination like some sort of spell.

Her freedom is beyond what one can imagine, because she is free not just by herself but also towards people who make contact with her. I’m trying to use words carefully, so when I say contact I do want to point out the peculiar nature of this story. Ema is more than human, as if she came from another planet, and so the film could be interpreted as sci-fi. The interesting thing is that this is not the only genre we could use to describe it: in fact, it is not absurd to think of Ema not just as an evil character but as Evil itself, and in doing so we could talk about a horror movie. In both cases, it is clear Larrain is dealing with the story of someone or something whose power is the most captivating motif, the engine of events.

It’s something that Larrain builds layer after layer, for the most part pretending what really matters are not the facts about Ema’s life but what kind of emotions and deep conflicts her behaviour can provoke. We can even go further, considering the real protagonists of this tale to be those who are subjected to her, more and more enslaved by this unreal person capable of doing and obtaining whatever she desires. There is a sequence that summarizes it all, giving an idea of this particular mechanism without words: a colourful collage of sex scenes edited as if they were an orgy. Incredible but true, obscene as it could seem, this part is stylized enough to be functional and seductive.

Reminiscent of films like Fame (1980) on the one hand and Teorema (1968) on the other, as destabilizing a combination as that is, Ema succeeds in depicting an entire generation, its struggle for a kind of freedom for which one doesn’t have to fight anymore, not against anyone, at least. It is an internal battle, the most challenging of all, which forces its characters to see themselves as who they really are and not how they would like to be or be perceived by the world around them. Constantly on the verge of collapsing, even if it never happens, this sensation is an essential part of the experience; Larrain knows when to push and when to slow down, so the intensity seems always right.

Don’t be scared by some metaphors here and there, because any kind of realism in Ema works as much as Larrain wants us to think of this chain of events as plausible, otherwise his trick could be spoiled. Ema is a contemporary fable about a young woman who incarnates her generation, quite convincing in the way the Chilean director strives for truth instead of reality, two completely different dimensions.