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Ema, Pablo Larraín
Ema, Pablo LarraínCourtesy of Mubi

Pablo Larraín on Ema, a sexual dance epic with flamethrowers

The Chilean filmmaker and its star Mariana Di Girolamo discuss the psychological dance drama, Reggaeton culture, and the lockdown sex the film could inspire

Flamethrowers are back in fashion, baby. It’s barely a minute into Pablo Larraín’s dazzling new film, Ema, when Ema, a peroxide pyromaniac played by Mariana Di Girolamo, parades her weapon of choice down a deserted street: a traffic light burns brighter than usual; cinders and ashes gently singe the pavement; and Ema proves that there’s no smoke without a firecracker personality. In Ema’s hands, a flamethrower is akin to an extravagant paintbrush or an electric guitar; she guides the instrument like an extra limb. As for how it feels to set the world alight? “Imagine an elephant blasting a stream of boiling water for 20 seconds,” Ema explains to her friends. “Male dinosaur cum.”

Like a moth drawn to a flame – or a mother drawn to a flamethrower – Ema can’t keep out of trouble. Understandably, Larraín, the Chilean auteur behind films such as Jackie, Neruda, and Oscar-nominated No, centres the film around its absurd but absurdly entertaining title character. Early on, Ema and her husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal, a Larraín regular), return their adopted child to an agency. The eight-year-old boy, Polo, has committed arson and his parents can’t cope. Adding fuel to the fire, Ema and Gastón are going through a bitter breakup. It’s Marriage Story, where neither party wants custody.

For that matter, Ema and Gastón share a Marriage Story-esque work relationship, too. Ema is an impulsive dancer, Gastón is a choreographer with control issues. Outside of the theatre, Ema escapes Gastón’s puppet strings and galivants in public areas to reggaeton music; behind Ema’s swinging arms and legs, the Chilean city of Valparaiso teems with graffiti, colour, and vivacious life. Oh, and then there’s the fireworks. “The flamethrower is Ema’s way to leave a testimony in the city,” Larraín tells me over Zoom. “It’s like people who use spray paint to leave tags and ideas on walls. She does that with fire. It’s a poetic way to express herself.”

When I speak to Larraín, it’s late April, a few days before Ema is released online through MUBI. The film was supposed to play theatrically for two weeks before its VOD release, but COVID-19 scuppered those plans. Similarly, Larraín was several months into shooting his first TV series, Lisey’s Story, when production was halted; all eight episodes are written by Stephen King, and Larraín is the sole director. He’s hesitant to go into any specifics, other than quashing the rumour that it’s now called Faces. For the moment, he’s doing a bit of postproduction from his home in Santiago.

“The flamethrower is Ema’s way to leave a testimony in the city. It’s like people who use spray paint to leave tags and ideas on walls. She does that with fire” – Pablo Larraín 

Oddly enough, the flamethrower from Ema happens to be in Larraín’s garage. “It’s blocked,” he laughs. “You can’t really use it. We used it for the movie and I kept it in a safe place.” Isn't that what Leonardo Di Caprio’s character does in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Larraín keenly adds, “It’s very important, if you want to quote this, that you remind everyone that this is a VFX tool used by experts, and it has no other purpose or use in any other circumstances.”

Like Ema, Larraín’s filmography is anything but predictable. His earlier work – including Tony Manero, a bleak comedy about a loner obsessed with John Travolta – earned acclaim at festivals, but his international breakthrough was 2012’s No, a Bernal-starring political satire that was nominated for the Foreign-Language Oscar. 2015’s The Club, a powerful drama about abusive priests in hiding, led to Darren Aronofsky personally asking Larraín to direct Jackie. As Larraín’s fame has risen, so has the number of A-listers on his projects: on Jackie, he directed Natalie Portman and Greta Gerwig; on Neruda, he reunited with Bernal; on Lisey’s Story, it’s Julianne Moore and Dane DeHaan.

Yet Di Girolamo is a name unfamiliar to UK and US audiences. In Chile, the actor has done TV shows and soaps that are popular enough to amass her a million followers on Instagram. However, Ema is her first movie. Larraín, in fact, had never seen Di Girolamo on screen when he decided to cast her; the director spotted her picture in a newspaper and arranged a coffee get-together.

“We spoke very little about the film in that first meeting,” De Girolamo recalls in a three-way Zoom call with me and an interpreter. “Pablo asked me to cut and dye my hair, which was very long and a trademark feature of mine because of a long-running TV series. It was only at Venice Film Festival that I learned he changed a lot of his original ideas based around my strengths, my abilities, and, perhaps, my weaknesses.”

Initially, Larraín – who, relevantly, produced Gloria and its English-language remake Gloria Bell – envisioned Ema as a 65-year-old woman. While Gloria attends discos at night, Ema possesses enough youthful energy to dance during the day as well: Ema performs in Gastón’s theatre shows, in the street, and, when attempting to seduce a lawyer, on a table in an office. “The whole issue of dance may have emerged from a conversation I had with Pablo,” De Girolamo adds. “I’d come back from a trip to Berlin, and I was talking about my love for techno. I love dancing, and I really need to dance. Maybe that’s the only thing I have in common with Ema.”

“We work with the unexpected. That uncertainty is similar to life. I have no idea what’s going to happen to any of us in a couple of hours, or even tomorrow, and I like to share that uncertainty with the actors” – Pablo Larraín

Remarkably, the script was written during the shoot itself. Larraín and his two co-writers, Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno, assembled the screenplay at such short notice that the actors often received pages of dialogue on the day they were performed. Larraín utilised this improvised method on The Club, too, although he isn’t so keen on my wording. “It’s not really improvisation,” the director says. “We work with the unexpected. That uncertainty is similar to life. I have no idea what’s going to happen to any of us in a couple of hours, or even tomorrow, and I like to share that uncertainty with the actors.”

I ask Di Girolamo if Larraín’s process is helpful or actually just really annoying. “It was very frightening because I wasn’t used to it,” she says. “I come from a world of TV series and soap operas where I know the trajectory of my character for at least 10 chapters before filming. It was my first experience in film, and at first I felt outside my comfort zone. But then I started to understand Pablo’s process, and that it would involve a lot of spontaneity and making decisions in the moment.”

Not that Di Girolamo’s nerves are ever apparent. Ema oozes pure confidence, and her explosive personality is mirrored by an infectious, pulsating score by Chilean-American artist Nicolás Jaar. Although principle photography started without a finished script, Jaar recorded most of the music beforehand; the electronic artist worked off a brief plot synopsis and it’s his extracts that glue the frenzied film together. “We adapted the tone and mood of the filmmaking to Nicolás’s music,” Larraín says. “It’s usually the other way around, right? I’d play his music to inspire the set and actors. Then once we had the movie, he worked on top of it.”

Jaar’s compositions are ambient, melancholic, and, where appropriate, extremely danceable. Certain synths sound like sad memories, while the more aggressive, bass-heavy beats spring the viewer back into the here and now. Some tracks, like “Destino” and “REAL”, are different enough from Jaar’s usual output that on YouTube they appear under the pseudonym of E$tado Unido. The soundtrack, though, percolates with actual reggaeton tunes. In a hilariously snobby rant, Gastón, who is a decade older than Ema, summarises reggaeton as “falling asleep in defeat”; to him, the repetitive beats are designed for inmates to forget that they’re in prison.

“Reggaeton was not my cup of tea,” Larraín admits. “But during the process of the movie, I got to understand it, and somehow enjoy it. It was important to include it because it’s a strong cultural element here in Latin America; when I went to Spotify, the most listened-to tracks in each country were reggaeton or trap music from the same family. Reggaeton makes people dance in a particular way.

“Reggaeton could be considered misogynist, and there’s some truth there. But at the same time, there’s music that could be very sensual, very sexy, and very political too, depending on which reggaeton you listen to. Gael’s character tells the women they shouldn’t dance to it because it’s misogynist and music for slaves. What they say to him is: ‘Don’t tell me what to listen to.’ That’s the biggest misogynist act: telling someone want to do, and what not to do, and what to enjoy.”

“Reggaeton could be considered misogynist, and there’s some truth there. But at the same time, there’s music that could be very sensual, very sexy, and very political too” – Pablo Larraín

Larraín and his editor, Sebastián Sepúlveda, have also been pioneering a non-chronological, jigsaw editing style in their last few films. In Neruda, for instance, the same conversation would be shot in multiple locations; one character asks a question, the other answers it from a different time and place. Likewise, Ema darts back and forth within scenes, as if emulating memories, traumas, and fantasies. The best comparison I can think of is Alain Resnais’s earlier avant-garde work like Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad.

“It’s psychological,” Larraín explains. “You’re more into the characters. The scenes continue the narrative, the dialogue, and the action – but the space changes. There’s a crisis in between the narrative and the space. That crisis creates something I consider quite beautiful.”

As Ema is structured like a remix, Di Girolamo didn’t know what to expect from the finished product. “We filmed so many scenes,” she says. “I wasn’t sure which direction Pablo would take it in. We had two or three different endings. I saw it at a private screening just before Venice. There was a scene where I was having sex with loads of different people, and I had to nip out.” She laughs. “I was worried people might think I felt awkward about it, but I just needed the toilet.”

In what Deadline referred to as “a competitive tussle”, UTA beat other agencies in October to sign Di Girolamo to their roster. She has two projects that were supposed to shoot in April. Instead, she’s been at home in Santiago, occasionally self-taping for potential roles. “It’s really bloody difficult. You’re doing auditions with invisible actors. It’s a weird time with this pandemic for all of us in the acting industry.” She’s been reading plenty of scripts, even if a lot of the offers are in the vein of Ema.

“But I’ve received a real variety as well,” Di Girolamo adds. “My English isn’t so great, so I’m having to work on that and hopefully I can work overseas in the future. Also, I’m 29 now. I’m going to be 30. But people think I look younger than I am, so maybe I’ll prepare for some schoolgirl roles as well.”

Larraín, I’m sure, is planning projects via Zoom with A-list actors and writers – he was once attached to do a remake of Scarface with Diego Luna, and has spent years attempting to direct The True American with leads such as Amy Adams and Mark Ruffalo. As a producer, his credits include the Oscar-winning transgender drama A Fantastic Woman. For the moment, though, there’s Ema – and Ema certainly feels of the moment. The drama’s themes include polyamory (Ema and Gastón explore their bisexuality with multiple partners), the societal pressures of motherhood, and whether artists should stop clinging to past traditions.

“It’s really bloody difficult. You’re doing auditions with invisible actors. It’s a weird time with this pandemic for all of us in the acting industry”– Mariana Di Girolamo

While Larraín doesn’t agree with my comparison of reggaeton with TikTok, there’s a generational divide between Gastón’s belief that contemporary dance belongs in theatres and Ema executing her reggaeton-backed choreography in the park in front of strangers. Is there a similar tension with movie distribution? “It was planned for Ema to be released in cinemas,” Larraín says. “We felt it was better to do it now, and to not keep waiting. MUBI is a streamer I love and actually use. I think Ema is hypnotic enough to have the audience connected with the film, even with a TV screen at home.”

Is it better to watch Ema alone with full concentration in your bedroom, or in the living room with housemates as if you’re in a cinema? “I think both,” Larraín says. “But if you see it with your housemates, I wonder what would happen afterwards among those housemates, and how they would interact among themselves.” He laughs. “I hope it would provoke something.”

I ask Di Girolamo what she thinks could happen to housemates streaming Ema together during lockdown. “That could end very well,” she says, giggling. “At the very least, they’ll have interesting conversations. It’s had a real impact for young people, and it’s an important film for what it can do to make you reconsider your ideas and paradigms. It may upset you, or disturb you, or trouble you – but no one comes out of it feeling indifferent.”

Ema is free to stream for 24 hours on May 1 at mubi.com/ema. From May 2, it is available for MUBI subscribers