With Ema, Pablo Larraín, plumbs the harrowing depths of depression. But he’s also made a movie that would be fun to watch with the sound off. From the opening shot of a burning traffic light dripping flames into a midnight intersection to the multiple, undulating dance sequences, Ema is thoroughly cinematic, even as its psychological spelunking becomes more complex and devastating. It’s a movie full of movement and neon warmth and it may undo you.
As the movie begins, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo, fierce and fearless) and her husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal) have recently given up the seven year old boy they adopted after only a short period of custody. He may be absent but his actions reverberate, from the neighbor’s cat found stuffed in the freezer to the still healing burns on Ema’s sister’s face. Without the bad seed there to direct our allegiances against him, though, all we’re left with is Ema and Gaston’s feeling of failure as parents. Others feel the same way and the judgment they receive, in addition to the blame they place on themselves, dismantles their marriage and sends Ema on a quest for self-destruction.
Ema’s depression, as consuming as wildfire, is the movie’s subject but Larraín doesn’t give us the distance to pity her. The film comes from a place deep inside her, allowing us to not just observe her pain but to feel the bliss that her path of self-obliteration offers. Ema is increasingly unable to regard herself as a human being. She can only reconcile herself with what she sees as her unforgivable actions by becoming an agent of annihilation. Mostly, she is her own target but she lashes out at the rest of the world too, occasionally with a flamethrower (hey, that traffic light didn’t set itself on fire), a metaphor about as subtle as a flamethrower.
More than anything else, it’s herself she wants to burn alive, which she attempts to do by turning her body into an altar at which others may freely worship. Ema is a movie filled with sex and yet almost thoroughly unsexy. Ema is in control of her own choices but, as Gaston points out, it’s an illusion of freedom that does nothing to halt or even waylay her pain. He may even be right about that but Larraín and screenwriters Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno make it clear that Gaston’s arrogance isn’t making him any happier than Ema’s abandon. There is, at the present time, no happiness on offer for either of them.
Ema and Gaston spend most of the film at odds, rather then enduring their pain together. But, despite being told from Ema’s point of view, the movie makes no attempt to cast Gaston as the bad guy. Both are psychologically and emotionally complex and distinct characters and, as such, their fate is to suffer. There is no redemption or absolution for them. Even if there were, they hate themselves too much to accept it. Time heals all wounds but, within the span of time covered in Ema, the closest thing to freedom is the disregard of the self.