Ema at Venezia 76: a defiantly unconventional, lysergic dreamscape

With Ema, Pablo Larraín has just fired a flaming arrow straight through the brain of Venice. A defiantly unconventional, lysergic dreamscape, it’s a challenging, euphoric piece of work that has torched its fellow competition to a crisp.

Taking the form of an abstract, impressionistic dance routine – living life as liberation – the film follows young dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal) after they make the decision to give up their adopted child Polo (Cristian) and their relationship falls apart. Gaston is the director of Ema’s dance troupe, and their split also causes conflict within the company.

But Larraín isn’t so interested in the same things that made Baumbach’s Marriage Story tick. Instead, he uses Ema’s loss as a springboard for a film that constantly challenges societal norms and the restrictions we self-impose on our behaviour. What does a family look like? What is the role of a woman or a man in a relationship? What is the appropriate way to conduct oneself with other people?

Interspersed with these questions are bizarre, relentlessly inventive dance sequences that drag us all over the city – from artists dorm rooms to theatres to mountains and industrial docklands. Always perfectly lit in the evening shades of sunset or neon, these scenes are beautiful and hypnotic, blurring the line between performance art and reality as the piece progresses.

Dazed and drugged-out, Ema operates as a night-time dreamlike reverie, drifting through the deserted city like a spectre haunting nothingness. Like in Jackie, Larraín has immense command of his audience – he understands instinctively how to portray traumatic situations in the way his characters would perceive them. He understands that losing a son, even if voluntarily, would be a deliriously destructive experience for a young mother, and he understands the subjective reality of that experience. Ask yourself, if you were a filmmaker, how would you convey the hazy nightmare of life after such a fundamental personal trauma? It’s almost impossible to imagine how to do it – I can’t even tell you how Larraín does it – and yet he does.

Ema is a true anarchist if there ever was one. Breaking laws, social norms, and conventions at every turn, she tries to reach something close to true liberation. This is, we’re repeatedly reminded, not about rebellion. It is not, in other words, about anger or violence; it is about love and expression – it’s about freedom. And, as much as we can see Ema’s actions as atypical or immoral, it’s hard to deny that her ideological slant is pure, or at least provocative. The film, too, is provocative – how, it asks us, do we respond to people like Ema, and why do we respond to them like we do? Do her intentions change the normative significance of her actions?

This is a film about the nexus between sex, love and power. We see how Ema uses her body to leverage all sorts of deals – from gaining trust and moving towards her proper goals to actually procuring legal services. Her attractiveness makes her powerful – more powerful than somebody with a lot of money: sex is its own currency. But love? Love is, at least as far as I can tell from Ema, destructive. It compels and propels awful actions and disrupts lives. Love is the kryptonite that keeps people from achieving their goals, because it replaces their goals by ones compelled by love. But what even is love? Like Claire Denis, Larraín appears to believe that love is simply a byproduct of our organic chemistry – a biological reaction without particular normative significance. Ema loses her adoptive son, and is unable to get over what has happened – her motherly love, something which is biologically programmed, forces her to do extreme things to get him back. It holds her back. Sex, love, and power.

Dazzled by flashing lights and copious splashes of explicit sex, Larraín begins to push his work further and further into abstraction. The way people act begins to collapse as characters become spiteful, artificial images of people – paintings, not humans. Lines are fired back and forth between parties like bullets from powerful machine guns – the viciousness of the exchange makes the audience gasp. A flamethrower makes its way onto the  scene – literally torching the social apparatus that governs normality; it is tempered by the crystalline water-jet from a fire engine shot in serotonin-pounding slow-motion.

But why? Why this rainbow kaleidoscope of bad behaviour tending increasingly towards the oneiric? Don’t be afraid, trust Larraín – it becomes gradually clear that there is something odd, weirdly funny and more than a little bit menacing going on. By the film’s end, it’s all too clear why characters have said and done the things they have to other characters. It’s final shot, ambiguous and menacing, suggests a libertine reinvention of Medea – or maybe not. The conclusion to this story is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s abstract, impressionistic, free-flowing and completely anarchic. It ignores conventions of structure, of storytelling and of acting. The trappings of narrative cinema have left you unprepared for the atmosphere and rhythm of Ema, and yet Larraín’s pacing feels instinctive; despite its uber-stylisation, organic. Is the whole film an abstract dance routine? Quite possibly.

Nicholas Jaar’s omnipresent soundscape is a brain-melting marvel that mixes psychedelic techno with thumping reggaeton in a way that envelops the theatre in a vibrating hug of bass and synth. Seamlessly blending, cyborg-like, with Sergio Armstrong’s celestial cinematography, Ema is a disorienting, immersive audio-visual experience to get completely lost in – to be intoxicated by. To cherish.

With Ema, Pablo Larraín has catapulted himself to the forefront of contemporary art-house cinema. He has taken everything great about Jackie – it’s oneiric mood, startlingly brilliant soundtrack, and luscious production design – and doubled down on that whilst dragging his art into increasingly innovative spaces. He may as well have thrown a grenade into Venezia 76 and torched the remains.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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