Bored in Flames: “Ema”

All but in the literal, the family is torched asunder, household happiness an ashy mess from which something new, more selfish, more polymorphously pragmatic can arise. Like a demented dramedy of familial reconstruction, the demon seed of a threesome between The Philadelphia Story, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Frances Ha, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s Ema takes love and care out of the equation, leaving its stringent formula for a home written only with the basest of impulses. Before we see anything on screen, we only hear crackles and hisses, the sound of someone looking to feel something. The only problem is that, for all of Larraín’s provocations, he outs himself not as Phoenix-like, finding duality in a winged firebird, but as somewhat pedestrian, who, despite pretenses, has all the insight and empathy as someone on the west coast throwing a gender reveal party that, unbeknownst to him, will have devastating consequences. He aspires towards Stravinskian heights in his study in fire and family, sex and disconnection but lands only as a TikTok loop. The problem is he feels nothing.

For a formal DSM diagnosis, pyromania requires a sense of release after a fire is set, a release from tension that has built up. That what is being released while Ema stands statuesque like, almost breathing fire is deliberately opaque: she is the wily, uncontrollable flame itself, beautiful and burning. Fire has no reason, and neither does she. In the film, a dancer, Ema (Mariana di Girolamoa), and her older choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal) play tug of psychosexual war with themselves and, implicitly, with the adopted son they’ve decided to return after a flame-related accident. Yet, Ema knowingly is setting up and engaging in the trappings of a melodrama, its primary couple, and even the ancillary relationships, supposedly built on how much and how deeply these people feel: Ema and Gastón hurl insults at each other as if immolating a history of romantic dysfunction, while other intimate dynamics are to be a kind of lustful kindling. A part of me couldn’t help but think of the opening line to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: an unhappy family here, in its own way, but beneath the char of spectacle, something icy and arch.

Off-screen for much of the film and yet often as central to its emotional mechanics as Ema herself is, the adopted Colombian son, Polo (Cristián Suárez), is pawn and metaphor. He is tossed around conversationally by his would-be adoptive parents, a ghost not of his own accord, Gastón and Ema freely conceiving of an inner life whose veracity is never inspected. He’s a problem child but also a beacon of hope, the dissolution of a relationship but the spark for the respective artists’ creative drive (a dance is choreographed around a literal sun). If Larraín had decided to omit Polo’s presence onscreen altogether, he may as well have been imaginary, a locust for all these ideas about pleasure, destruction, rebirth, etc. like out of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Gastón and Ema talk about their marriage and its acid-soaked dynamics, but seldom enact them, their marital fury hushed, any pretense of subtext aflame as well. It’s all that emotion on the page without something mortal to make it live. Ema’s dialogue seems arranged in a manner that suggests a desire to reduce these exchanges about love, hate, loss, parenthood, and the nuclear unit to their core elements, stylistically making them both opaque in syntax and explicit in content. But it’s noxious, the same dull “telling, not showing” that Larraín’s Jackie suffered from, a portentous attempt at making aestheticized dialogue about marriage poetic without being especially articulate about it. Which seems a shame given how much is said about this child and the well of meaning he contains, in both the literal and figurative.

But it’s not really about this child of adoption, is it? As much as a specter as he is, teetering between accidental subject and deliberate object, an unavoidable topic of discussion for the tempestuous couple, he lands as unseen vessel of, supposedly, movement, the emotional and narrative kind. And Larraín, to all appearances, wants this film to be about and embody movement, the shapeshifting of relational dynamics and intimacies, the whirring force of power being stripped and gained, the momentum of orgasm as itself an experience and thing to harness that can both jolt things/people with life or decimate those same things.

Gastón is a choreographer of folk dances, which Ema has grown wary of, turning to reggaeton and its, so posits the film, wolfishness and raw lasciviousness. But it’s unclear how invested Larraín is, formally, in that movement: yes, Ema plays a kind of emotional and sexual ringmaster, advancing its occasionally opaque plot along with adequate pace, but his attentiveness to bodies in movement feels dubious at times. If a film like In the Heights splits the difference unsatisfactorily between neoclassical Busby Berkley in its oft jettisoned shots of shape and uniform arrangement, and an imitative hyperactive, post-Baz Luhrmann MTV incoherence, which itself creates a bad overcorrection on the perceived lack of close detail on dancers that made filmmakers Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen movie musical legends, Ema heads to the other end of the spectrum. As opposed to anxious cuts and on-the-beat edits, Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong’s camera dollies around dancers or tracks them, frequently from the waist up. It’s not the mess of, say, Fosse/Verdon, but the initial freshness of a camera that watches its dancers, sometimes their entire figure, soon subsides, its brief reverence for dancers dancing congealing to a sort of apathy. It becomes such that, by the end of the film, and after a rather enticing interlude of sex and dancing (yada yada, aren’t they the same thing? And a flame dances too! How very novel of Larraín!), the camera stops bothering to catch those figures untethered by normative boundaries, stops really looking at them, revering them.

Yet, the camera is transfixed by Mariana Di Girolamo, which is not to say the performance is above reproach; a seductress with a Machiavellian streak, Di Girolamo gives Ema a gaze of voracity. If she could sink her teeth into the audience, she would. And that is compelling, in its way, her blinding bleach-stained hair slicked back, which, paired with chic streetwear in blues and auburns, make her look like a James Bond villain dropped into an art-house musical. No wonder why everyone wants her — her dancer friends, a bartender/firefighter, the son she abandoned, her divorce lawyer, and the husband she can’t quite quit — with a stare like that. You can almost hear her licking her lips. But, while she tells a school principal that her ethos about dance, and effectively about life, is freedom, disassociated from the tradition-bound nature of the folk dances she once performed, there’s not that same liberatory aspect to Di Girolamo’s body language outside of the dancing scenes. She’s stiff, and despite the ferality of her actions and attitude, from the abandonment of the adopted child to the Hitchcockian scamming, all done with a laissez-faire smirk, her performance is otherwise Earth-bound. Eye-fucking is not enough. She very nearly elevates the material, her stark stare on the edge of claiming authorship over the entire film. It’s certainly astounding to watch her in protective gear, a whiff of steampunk in the air, as she indulges in her pyromania and sprays her world with a little napalm. But is it her, or just the thrill of the idea of someone scorching her world to get what she wants?

But something feels off and uncomfortable, and it’s both feature and bug: Ema’s naughty behavior is supposed to be kind of cool, sexy, subversive. She blazes her own concept of what she wants with little thought of who might get burned, and that’s supposed to be maybe a little radical, possibly some kind of revisionist, exciting quasi-feminist/queer villainy as icon and iconography. It is, admittedly, difficult to not take the film and its choices rather personally (blah blah blah, I’m adopted, yada yad yada), but to do so feels solipsistic. With its gleeful portrayal of a bad mom and an adopted child caught in flux, it at least reveals an open maw of the peculiarities of portraying adoption on film. It avoids sentimentality and cliched biological essentialism, but thinks using adoption as metaphor will let it off the hook for a kind of emptiness that craters the film. There’s a void of good movies about adoption, though they’re not nonexistent: AI: Artificial Intelligence and Silent Hill are exemplars of the type. But Larraín’s utilitarian approach to adoption — here, a narrative/emotional MacGuffin, a conduit for destruction and rebirth, an Oedipal kink, an abyss of abandonment, a metaphor for the artificial construction of the nuclear unit, an allegory for man’s inherited sadism from Mother Earth herself, political imagery of Chile’s fraught relationship with Colombia and Venezuela, self-conscious melodramatic trope — is undone by his attempt at making the character real via the conversations about him, the speculation of an interiority that we never get to feel or experience. It’s one or the other; the allegory or the person. It’s never both, never human, never illustrated with the gradations of aliveness, never wrought with nuance or rigor or tenderness. It’s this indecision, and the apparent willful delight with which it is made (along with Ema’s unscrupulous behavior), that discloses a vacuousness, a singed cake to be eaten and had. The film is not made with care or affection, even in its most bleakly comedic moments; it has the same vapid interest in its lead and her remorselessness that your average gay man has for a white woman actress. The film likes the spectacle of itself, the theatricality of high emotions, and diabolical danger, yet still feels at a distance, dismissing the brittle, unexciting, quotidian crevices of pain, longing, love, and yearning. Ultimately, it intellectualizes emotions, abates them of soul, in a story that’s supposed to be driven by their intuitive recklessness and electricity.

Polo, who, for more than two-thirds of it is its absent anchor, says maybe three lines in the whole film. It was Ema — who wants to be everything and nothing — who taught Polo — who wants Ema to be his everything and nothing, and who is himself everything and nothing — who taught him to set things alight. Their doomed relationship was seemingly born in flames. And, in the meantime, Larraín has incinerated the family melodrama, without feeling a thing. Emily Dickson wrote, “Ashes denote fire was/Respect the grayest pile/For the departed creature’s sake/That hovered there awhile.” Ema never does.

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Kyle Turner

Kyle Turner

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc