May 13, 2021

Film

Dance dance revolution: ‘Ema’

By Michael Sun

Still from Ema

Pablo Larrain’s beguiling, difficult film seeks to understand an impenetrable anti-heroine for whom the city is a dancefloor

There are moments where dance can seem like sorcery. Dario Argento knew this, and so did Luca Guadagnino, both directors harnessing the witchy power of writhing limbs and corporeal contortions to craft two different – though similarly gothic – versions of Suspiria. In Gaspar Noé’s Climax – a shocking boiler-room affair of a dance troupe’s afterparty gone wrong – the boundary between dance and violence becomes porous, blurring into a single macabre fantasia. Other artists have used dance less grimly: musicians like Troye Sivan and Lorde have been alternately mocked and lauded for their jerky, nervous movements. And actor Tom Holland’s performance of “Umbrella” on Comedy Central’s Lip Sync Battle, which celebrated its fourth birthday last week, possesses a religiosity that speaks for itself. The way Holland transforms to the tune of Rihanna’s pop hit can only be described as alchemy. 

Dance reaches an enchanting extreme in Ema (in cinemas May 13), Pablo Larrain’s beguiling new film that manipulates the tropes of its loose-jointed forebears and garbles them into a form that’s balanced on a knife edge: between the grounded and the surreal, between fanciful montage moments and vignettes of a family in disrepair, between Suspiria’s demonic possession and Tom Holland’s unfettered ecstasy.

The Chilean port city Valparaíso provides an apt stage for all these heightened tensions: its streets were built on almost unconquerable inclines, and patchworks of candy-coloured terraces rise like crayons above abandoned carparks. Valparaíso – conjuring up salt and sweat in every heady shot – becomes both runway and nightclub for the titular dancer, Ema (newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo), who slinks, skulks and struts her way across its urban maze, wreaking havoc in leopard print and Adidas tracksuits. 

Larrain is quick to sketch out the narrative set-up before pulling away into the thrusts of something far darker. With a few scant details and a string of hurled insults from a social worker, we learn that Ema and her choreographer husband Gastón (a stony-faced Gael García Bernal) have returned their adopted son Polo (Cristian Felipe Suarez) to an orphanage following a series of events that are unfortunate at best, sociopathic at worst. Polo has burned down their house, perhaps intentionally, and injured Ema’s now-hospitalised sister. The unhappy couple, seeing no other choice, have abandoned him, although each blames the other for what’s ensued. “You taught him to set things on fire,” Gastón accuses. “Infertile pig,” Ema spits back.

So begins a cat-and-mouse game, and the marriage, already in strife, continues to fester as Ema and Gastón exploit both psychological and sexual insecurities by sleeping with others, then describing the acts in lurid detail. Another betrayal: Ema begins favouring the liberation of reggaeton music (like an “orgasm that can be danced,” as one character says) over Gastón’s preferred expressionism, which, he claims, is more aesthetically pure. Running alongside it all is Ema’s desperate hunt for Polo’s new family, driven by guilt, or revenge, or something else entirely. At every turn, Larrain eschews clarity for an increasingly frustrating abstraction, purposefully tempting us to go deeper and deeper into Ema’s vortex while she shimmies and shakes her way towards oblivion. I’m reminded of a line from a  Perfume Genius song: “No family is safe / when I sashay.”

Ema and its protagonist are decidedly unknowable, both so impenetrable at times that they can feel thin: a translucent film of hyperstylisation barely concealing an empty vessel. But that’s the key to their magnetism. Just as Ema shapeshifts into any number of roleplaying personas – from femme fatale to damsel in distress – in order to lure others into her web of deception, so too does Larrain’s film assume a litany of forms, veering rapidly from a sentimental family drama to the pounding throes of a neon-flooded dancefloor so debaucherous it makes Euphoria look like The Brady Bunch

Both film and character are so chameleonic that the result is difficult, often dense viewing that’s nevertheless made rewarding by the singularity of Larrain’s fixation. Ema’s anarchic unpredictability isn’t necessarily new; she joins a lineage of recent anti-heroines dedicated to the destruction of themselves and everyone around them (Frances Ha ­– another film about a dancer – comes to mind as a classic example). What’s interesting about Larrain’s approach is its blinkered commitment to knowing its subject, even as she resists easy categorisation. 

In his previous film, 2016’s Oscar-nominated Jackie, Larrain crafted a lacerating portrait of grief by tracking a First Lady’s private mourning in the aftermath of an incredibly public tragedy. This grandiose effort, now concentrated in a smaller scale in Ema, feels nothing short of frenetic, even obsessive. Ema is framed dead-centre in almost every shot, seemingly caught in the crosshairs, as the film burrows further into her troubled psyche via hallucinatory hook-ups and dangerous liaisons. What it finds within Ema is a sort of cult-leader charisma: just enchanting enough to lead a small army of dancers in a fiery revolution, but not so conniving that the revolution ever congeals into any solidified aims. Is she railing against the patriarchy, and all its expectations and fantasies of motherhood? Prudish conservatives at large? Those who made a leper of her upon learning of Polo’s re-adoption?

All throughout, fire remains a nightmarish motif – from Polo’s inciting incident to electronic producer Nicolás Jaar’s score, crackling with menacing synths, to the flamethrower that Ema inexplicably acquires and wields like an instrument, leaving a trail of scorched swing sets, traffic lights and basketball hoops in her wake. As each object burns, blowing plumes of smoke across eerie landscapes, Ema remains listless as ever: a disaffection that feels not stoic, but haunted.

“I’m evil,” she professes. But the arson, like all the other wreckage she causes, isn’t quite the work of evil; on the contrary, it’s someone trying to make herself whole again – to complete the impossible task of knowing herself. Who is Ema, really? It doesn’t matter, so long as we lose ourselves in the rhythm of her creation.

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

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