In the world of dance films, the sociocultural and the interpersonal freely and passionately fornicate. Whether you’re watching Footloose (1984), Billy Elliot (2000), Step Up (2006) or last year’s searing And Then We Danced, each charged pas de deux inevitably pirouettes into questions of class, sexuality, rebellion.
This is a natural fit. Dance — so deeply rooted in the body and its ability to move not only itself but an audience — brims with contradictions and tensions, the macro and the micro. Its forms have long histories that have shaped entire cultures. They demand rigid discipline to master, a strict adherence to not only instruction but also philosophy. Yet, as with all kinds of art, they are constantly in flux: seeking re-invention, change, a rejection of delineated limits. As a form of self-expression, one that often requires unity and intimacy with other dancers, dance also involves an interplay of domination, submission and total openness to the senses.
“On the dance stage, human beings place themselves before us much as, in old Italian frescoes, souls came before God: without words, without excuses, without much covering of any kind,” states The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella. “They are more or less as they were when they came out of their mothers: flesh and energy, now with the addition of skill. That composite stands for what they are as moral beings, and what, in consequence, they tell us the world is.”
Through this explosive composite, sensation is used as a vehicle for metaphysical exploration — a perfect match for the film medium, which contains similar ambitions.
At first blush, dance appears to be negligible in Pablo Larraín’s Ema. Yes, the titular heroine (played by magnetic newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer, part of a contemporary troupe based in Valparaíso, Chile. She’s married to the troupe’s leader Gastón (Gael García Bernal) a brooding man 12 years her senior. But the first act of the film disdains its choreographed, leotard-clad sequences; it easily cuts away to a series of dramatic exchanges between the couple, marked by plodding and identical back-and-forths. Ema and Gastón have recently returned their adopted seven-year-old son Polo (Cristián Suárez) to an orphanage, a move that draws the ire of their peers and co-workers. The boy was disturbed, we’re told. He lit their house on fire, severely disfiguring the face of Ema’s sister. Ema mocks Gastón’s infertility, deeming it the root of their troubles (at one point calling him a “human condom”). Gastón accuses Ema of failing as a woman due her questionable maternal instincts. If Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018) was a dance film on psychedelics, Ema’s on a strict diet of Benzos — these spousal spats sporadically slip into drowsy slices of the troupe backlit by a crackling LED sun, or warming up on a basketball court. We glimpse Ema dancing alone against a gauzy lilac sunset, or pulsating in unison with her girl squad on public transport.
Larraín’s characteristic dream-logic linearity is scattershot and apathetic here, which makes for a frustrating viewing experience, especially as Ema herself appears to be a parody of a disaffected millennial. Her hair is Phoebe Bridgers-blonde, always greased. She looks music-video ready, cycling through a wardrobe of leopard-print mesh, oversized denim and streetwear. Her gaze is, for the most part, blank, as if every accusation thrown against her is meaningless, that her predominant mood is: ‘whatever.’ Like in Larraín’s last feature Jackie (2016), the camera is obsessed with its heroine. It tracks her from every angle, centres her in almost every frame; but instead of sinking us into a psychological chasm of trauma, Ema’s feelings are largely inaccessible. She sometimes peers down at the audience, as if asking us why we’re even here.
But when Ema is abruptly thrown out by her husband, something clicked into place for me. Something electric. This is a character that thrives in survival mode, when she is driven by instinct, by raw sensual power, by bodily sensation — just like in dance. The circular vignettes, so challenging to me before, suddenly became hypnotic, as Ema concocts a master plan to regain control. One that involves seducing an unhappy couple, flirting her way through job interviews and torching parts of the city with a flamethrower, taking selfies in the smoldering ruins. Di Girolamo, previously so static and withdrawn, is suddenly defined by audacious activity. She jumps on a table to win a woman’s affection; she hoists a hulking propane tank around her shoulder; impresses stuffy examiners with her radical honesty. All the while, she rejects Gastón’s tastes for the musical style of Reggaeton, performing in an unforgettable montage on the streets, in shopping centres, on a vast rooftop.
Ema unspools into a dance film both in practice and sensibility. In the anodyne first act, Ema fails to conform to the strictures of being a respectable woman and artist. So she reshapes her life and art form in a way that is wholly her: queer, anarchic, polyamorous, hungry for more. The tensions in dance, between generations, explode in a captivating, if slightly on-the-nose, argument between Gastón and Ema’s new crew. Gastón, in an Old Man Yells At Cloud moment, decries Reggaeton as “prison music,” where young people glamorise drugs, violence and sexual liberation in order to forget the crushing realities of real life. Ema’s friend retorts:
“I don’t know what I feel if I see something nice. Now I like dancing much more because it’s like fucking. Happy. With a flushed face, cussing. Hot, sexy, crazy, moving. And of the sudden, bam! I’m surrounded by people. And they’re all horny as me. Moving as if they were fucking, but with music. It’s delicious, motherfucker. That’s life.”
As for Ema, she says nothing. She doesn’t need to: she already embodies this ideology through her messy and bold filmic journey, through her dance. By the closing scenes, it’s almost frightening how much power Ema has, how much she has accomplished because of it; she smirks directly into the camera, as if mocking the audience for thinking we could ever judge or pin down a woman whose trade is relentless, fluid movement.
Ema screens as the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival’s Closing Night Film on 22 August.
Claire Cao is a freelance writer and avid dumpling lover from Western Sydney. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Voiceworks, SBS Life and the anthology Sweatshop Women. She tweets @clairexinwen.