Flame on, you crazy diamond: Ema (2019)

Some men just want to watch the world burn, someone once said. Perhaps the same can be said for some women. Not necessarily to harm or hurt, not for revenge or hatred. But perhaps there are people who, when they are told that they shouldn’t play with fire, what they hear is a taunt or, worse, a prison sentence being pronounced. Freedom means that you can burn whatever, whoever, whenever – and if someone really, truly loves you, they should understand that you need that flame to be available. So what if it burns someone?

In Switzerland, the latest film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is called Ema y Gastón, but that title is due to the country’s film release schedule: the distributors didn’t want to risk moviegoers to confuse it with the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. While this approach is understandable from a commercial perspective (even if the little virus that could upset all release schedules for months and months to come), the main character of Larraín’s film is very decidedly the dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), not her sometimes lover, the choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal). Truth be told, all of the film’s other characters are satellites orbiting Ema, the fierce, fiery sun at the centre of everything.

There is a plot that provides Ema with some structure, but it is fragmented, elliptic and in the end is at the service of its central character, rather than the other way around. Ema and Gastón wanted children but couldn’t have any, so they adopted a young boy, Polo. Although Polo grows devoted to Ema, he also acts out with startling intensity, and whether it is an accident or intentional, he sets a fire that badly scars Ema’s sister. Ema’s relationship with Gastón grows sour as each blames the other, though several others echo Gastón’s incriminations that Ema was a bad, unnatural mother. Intent on proving to herself and the world that she can have, and be, anything she wants, Ema resolves to get Polo back.

Some of what happens in Ema I only understood later, or perhaps I still didn’t understand it. The film is structured the way a Jackson Pollock painting is structured: Ema leaves her splatters on her world, and each of these tells us something about her – though I am not sure I understood her better by the end. What I came to understand, though, is that for Ema, freedom is everything – the freedom to be who she wants to be, do what she wants to do, sleep with whoever she wants to sleep with. And if the world seems to tell her that she can’t do something? She’ll damn well prove that she can, and pity anyone who gets in her way. Her small, waifish exterior belies her character. She isn’t a terminator, when she wields an actual, not metaphorical flame thrower, she might as well be.

Ema is omnivorous, omnisexual, she has big wants and needs – and it is her unwillingness to compromise, her primal need to be free, that makes her a magnet to others. At first I was frustrated by how quickly and completely many of the film’s supporting characters fall for Ema, but it makes sense: they are largely bound by societal pressures and the expectations of others, they behave, they compromise, and here is someone who doesn’t do any of these things. It’s exhilarating to be along for the ride, and Larraín and his cinematographer Sergio Armstrong find a visual language that vibrates with the fierceness of that allure. Ema signifies freedom – but in the end it is her freedom only. There comes a moment for most of these satellites attracted by Ema’s pull when you can see on the characters’ faces that they realise, however briefly, that Ema is a live flame. They might think that they are lovers, parents, friends – but, finally, they may be there first and foremost to be consumed.

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