Sex is Power in Pablo Larraín’s ‘Ema’

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“Burn in order to sow again.”

The opening shot of Pablo Larraín’s psycho-sexual film, Ema, shows a traffic light burning whilst the camera slowly pans out to reveal the night-time streets completely empty, safe for one woman standing there with a flamethrower watching as the fire continues to rain down upon the ground. This first scene perfectly sets the anarchal tone for the rest of this film. We meet Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a young dancer who is married to her older choreographer, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), as they deal with the aftermath of a failed adoption, the consequence of which leads them down a road of blame, anguish and regret. 

Ema is a beautiful film thanks to Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography. The dance sequences are some of the most notable, especially the first time we see Ema performing within her company, where the background is a video of the sun burning bright as it changes colours, illuminating the shadows of the frantically moving bodies. The only sound is the crackling of the sun and a deep drumming rhythm. At the end of the first dance, we see Ema in the middle of the dancers as they all sink to the ground, enveloping her in their grasps until we can no longer see her, swallowed up completely as she is lost to her grief. It is absolutely mesmerising to witness. The choice to have a good portion of the film take place at night, where the only way to illuminate the characters is by neon light or flame, only adds to its haunting beauty. Nicholas Jaar’s score in the film creates an eerie, electric atmosphere that ties it all together, almost reminiscent of a horror film at times. 

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Ema is a study on how far one will go to get what they want. While Ema and Gastón claim they love one another, they do everything they can to tear each other apart for what they have both done, showcasing incredible dialogue from Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno that cut deep. The performances from Di Girolamo, an incredible breakout performance nonetheless, and Bernal is a dance in and of itself, the constant push and pull from the two lovers who equally cannot stand to be around each other yet are completely codependent out of sheer need. All of these feelings are displayed masterfully by the two actors, where at the end of the day, you understand that it will always be the two of them. 

There is a sexual element to each dance Ema does which bleeds into the rest of the film. Ema wields her power by using the confidence in her sexuality to her advantage, to seduce and to manipulate others for her own gain. The entirety of the film hinges on this magnetic attraction everyone has for her. Ema warns of her own evilness as she is bathed in a neon green hue, understanding that her plot is, in fact, deliciously horrid. 

Ema would delight in setting the entire world on fire for her own enjoyment, just so she can watch. The plot of this film is slowly laid out from the start, where the ending does not bring a big surprise for the audience, but instead climaxes as Ema’s plan is revealed to those involved. We get to watch as she sets the lives of others ablaze, and it is wildly entertaining to see a twisted web of betrayal finally come to light. Despite getting what she wants, the film nevertheless ends with Ema filling up a gas can, further proving that this was never just about the culmination of her master plan but rather her own satisfaction.

Ema is available to stream on MUBI and rent on VOD now

by Alysha Prasad

Alysha Prasad (she/her) is a freelance writer who is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favourite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.

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