An intoxicating look at sex, power and class in Chile

An intoxicating look at sex, power and class in Chile
The life of Ema — South American director Pablo Larraín discusses his new film Ema: an anarchic, dance-fuelled redemption story.

In 2016’s Oscar-nominated Jackie, Pablo Larraín imagined the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination through the lens of his widow, Jacqueline Onassis. In his new feature, Ema, the Chilean director references the similarly obstructive emotions imposed by loss and trauma.

Here, Larraín tells the story of Ema; a dancer in a toxic relationship with her much older husband, Gastón. The pair have recently been forced to return their adopted son to state care, but Ema is filled with guilt and frustration by the decision. The film follows her as she attempts to get him back, with little care of the consequences. “It’s a story of redemption,” the director clarifies over a Zoom call in the week preceding its UK release. 

Using dance to demonstrate the social landscape and power dynamics that inform the film’s narrative, we observe as the couple both antagonise each other and provoke those around them. Visually alluring, with an original score by Nicolas Jaar, the film is an intoxicating portrait of sex, power and class in modern-day Chile. As the film gets its official MUBI release in the UK, we caught up with Larraín to unpack its power.

What led you to explore dance with this film?
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but once someone taped me with a camera phone – I had no idea I was being taped – and I was dancing. I saw it and thought it was ridiculous, I felt so embarrassed. But then I realised there was an element of my personality there, and the only way to express it was through dancing, so I felt it was interesting to have Ema be a dancer and put the movie into that world, where the dance element would be another layer of the character. She expresses herself through the way she dances. 

I read that a lot of the movie – particularly the dialogue – was written while you were filming. Why?
The actors didn’t have the script, they didn’t know the entire destiny of the story. So you have actors that are used to preparing the roles completely, knowing most of the character. In this circumstance, the actors are going through a process that’s full of uncertainty, like life and a number of things around us; that creates a very interesting performance in my opinion. They’re getting the scenes in the morning, they absorb them, and then when they perform it feels unique, that you’re witnessing something real, that is actually happening. I’ve made movies that are more conventional, but sometimes it really creates something interesting and unexpected.

This is your third film with Gael García Bernal. How did your relationship and this history help in terms of building his character?
He’s a friend, you know. It’s just exciting, to work with an actor that’s as brilliant, mysterious and particular as Gael. This process was fascinating again. He represents us, the people who did the movie, in terms of the generation: he’s from the generation of the past century literally, and the movie tells the story of a generation that’s younger. They have a different vision of reality, politics, music and dance, and even around family, so he was good at creating that sort of contrast. 

Mariana Di Giorlamo is a brilliant Ema. Was there anything or anyone in particular that inspired this character and that specific kind of energy?
We had no strong reference when we built the character. I thought that the movie was going to be very different depending on who the performers would be, so once we found her we built the movie around her – her physicality, the way she moves and talks – we created a very strong character. It’s funny because it’s completely different from Mariana: Mariana is very gentle, sweet, and she’s doing the opposite in the movie. So that process was interesting and she did a wonderful performance. She has an enormous amount of mystery, and she dances in a way that expresses a lot from the character in a very unconscious way. She was able to absorb the character through dance, as well as through more intellectual tools. 

Nicolas Jaar scored the film. How did this collaboration come about?
I’m a big fan, I’ve admired his work since he started. I invited him to be part of the process when we didn’t even have the full script, just a concept, and he got on board. He started sending music – it became a very unusual process because most of the time, you shoot the movie, cut it and then you share with the musician. This time we had the music before, so we adapted the tone and the mood of the movie through the music that Nicolas delivered. I think it’s very hypnotic, it’s a movie that goes through your ears and through your fingernails and your nose and your eyes.

There’s a line in the film, from one of Ema’s friends to Gastón. “You’re a tourist here,” she says. How are you exploring themes of art and cultural tourism here?
Gael plays a Mexican choreographer working with elements from folk music and folk dances. The dancers feel that he is disconnected from the reality of the streets: that’s the crisis the movie represents. It’s a situation where, you see a company that’s struggling with its leader because they feel that whatever they’re doing inside of those four walls is totally isolated. That’s why the reggaeton comes in, because that’s what they want to dance to: they want to express collectively through the music that they’re free.

The dancers also feel that this choreographer is just looking at them as a tourist, which raises an interesting question because most filmmakers – even when we work in environments that are very close to us – could be seen as foreign witnesses. But then, you could also say that a foreigner comes to a community with fresh eyes, which could be interesting because they look at things that most people won’t see so clearly. 

Ema is available to stream on MUBI now. 

Follow Zoe Whitfield on Twitter.

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