If you’re looking to meet a shock-of-the-new, beyond-punk vanguard girl who’s so out there and alienated, and maybe liberated, that you’ve never quite seen the likes of her, you could do worse than spend 102 minutes in the company of Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), the title viper of Pablo Larraín’s new film. Ema, with her stick earrings and nose ring, her slicked-back platinum mane and big-eyed insatiable blank stare that takes in everything and gives back nothing, is a dancer who lives in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso. When she’s doing her Reggaeton dance moves, punching the air as if she owned it, she’s like Lady Gaga in the great video for “Telephone.” But this is a Gaga who’s gangsta. After hours, she takes out a flamethrower and sets fire to cars, swing sets, traffic lights. She’s the mother of an adopted son, and if you’re wondering how bad a mother she is, the movie kicks off with the revelation that she has decided to give the kid back. (She couldn’t handle the fact that she turned him into a pyromaniac.)
Ema is no one’s idea of a nurturer, or even a functional human being. She’s so disaffected that the benumbed protagonist of Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond” looks jolly by comparison, so incendiary that she makes the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seem like Little Miss Sunshine. I should mention that when she gets in a certain mood, she’ll shag anything that moves.
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You’re probably thinking that a character like Ema, in her “newness,” isn’t actually all that new. And you’d be right (sort of). The movies have played with advanced styles of feminine damage, and variations on how to look like you don’t care about anything in the least, for a long time. (Just recall last year’s pop apocalypse double bill of “Vox Lox” and “Her Smell.”) What’s novel about “Ema” is that Pablo Larraín has made a movie that, in its form, is every bit as warped and jagged and jarring and difficult to cuddle up to as its heroine.
Unlike most of my critical brethren, I’ve never been overly wild about Larraín’s films (sorry, but I found “Tony Manero” contrived, and thought “Neruda” was sodden and meandering). But I was blown away by what he did in “Jackie,” the lyrical psychodrama starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the harrowing week following the JFK assassination. The film suggested, at least to me, that Larraín is a superb director when he gets away from his own material. Given that film’s profile, I figured he might continue to do just that, but instead he has drawn on his “Jackie” mojo, for the moment, in a fresh and idiosyncratic way, returning to Chile to make a film that’s borderline experimental in its free-form methods.
“Ema” won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea — and commercially, I suspect, it’s doomed to be hardly anyone’s. (Even “Vox Lux” and “Her Smell,” with their gaudy flamboyant movie-star turns, couldn’t draw much of an audience.) But even as “Ema” parades itself as a prickly art object, one that refuses to invite the viewer in, it has a crucial element in common with “Jackie”: the way that Larraín fixates on his heroine. The 28-year-old Mariana Di Girolamo has a rapt millennial-void presence, like Garbo on mood stabilizers, and she’s the lone force holding a precarious, prismatic movie together. “Ema” is an estranging experience at first but slowly lures you in.
The film, you see, has no story at all. It’s more like a randomized series of events, and what plays out during some of them is enigmatic enough to exist in a realm between reality and metaphor. How, exactly, does Ema have access to a flamethrower? There’s no convincing answer, but why she wields a flamethrower makes perfect poetic sense. And the story of Ema and her child is never less than bizarrely discomfiting. She is, in fact, married to Gastón (Gael García Bernal), the leader and choreographer of a local hipster dance company. He’s a forceful figure, except for one thing: He’s sterile. And so they adopted Polo, a kid of about 8 or 9 from Colombia, whom Ema taught to set things on fire (early on, we see her sister in a hospital bed, the side of her face burned and bandaged). A dead cat in the freezer is blamed on Polo as well.
Is the movie toying with us? If this stuff is on the level, then Ema isn’t guilty of being a bad mom — she’s guilty of child abuse. And yes, Child Protective Services has come into the picture. But the real issue is: What are we supposed to make of her? Is doing this kind of human damage meant to be excused as some variety of punk gesture?
On some level it is, and I found that awesomely off-putting. But once Polo (who we barely see) is out of the picture, “Ema” settles down into what it really is: a crystallized portrait of a new feminine attitude, one that treats men as irrelevant and unnecessary, but only because it’s about a yearning of the feminine to celebrate, and totally know, itself. “Ema” is channeling that consciousness, holding it up to the light, and the scenes with Ema and her girlfriends from the dance troupe are the best in the film. They’re intimate snapshots of a defiant sisterhood, one that glides in and out of the erotic. Ema also meets a handsome bartender (Santiago Cabrera) whom she’s drawn into an affair with, but as nice as he is she’s really just using him as a stud horse.
Valparaíso was the town that Pablo Neruda took as a getaway, and in “Ema” it functions as a kind of Chilean version of Portland — a laidback place where freak flags can fly. Larraín made this movie with a kind of freedom, improvising and doing what he wanted, and that’s the feeling he imparts to the viewer. There are dance montages (which are fantastic), and a sex montage (which is lusty, but mostly because of how dramatically it spotlights Ema’s limitless hunger). And there’s a resolution to all this that would like, somehow, to be sentimental and gonzo at the same time, so it doesn’t quite work. The whole movie, let’s be honest, is kind of a stunt. Yet it’s a stunt that stays in your head.