Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because the meaning behind these powerful primordial images of transformation is so clear — we are in a post-linear reality defined by the Self-sufficiency of the inherently bisexual female after millennia of male domination.
The first impression is not an image but the sound of fire. We see a traffic light in flames. Linear time is being destroyed. Who is the perpetuator?
A figure appears holding a canister with a tank strapped on the back. We see behind a clear mask the face of a woman…Ema.
The proactively fearless New Woman is a foreground shadow against the dawn breaking over the port of Valparaíso. In a nonlinear sequence framed by the symbol of a sphere, the striking face of Chilean actress Mariana Di Girolamo repels negative projections from every direction; she is labeled a “bad mother” by the social worker in the state system that has provided and taken their son, her employer in the education system — and her lover Gaston, who projects his infantile needs onto the son they just gave away.
We first see Gaston lit up in red in the cavernous space of his avant-garde dance performance before taking a bow beside her to receive the applause. Played by the global superstar, Gael García Bernal, the choreographer is playing his native heritage as Mexican. Yet, is is every bit a stand-in for his screenwriter/director who cast his own actress wife as the onscreen partner of Garcia Bernal in their first film together: NO.
This nonlinear opening of Ema establishes a theme crucial to our times — moving beyond the male gaze to a New Woman born from the Chilean collective circling back through the decades of Neoliberalism to the early 1970’s Allende experiment of a new culture based in the autonomy of number.
The bow to applause is the present moment of convergence between the past and future primal struggle between Gaston and Ema encapsulated in an image of equality before the Observer. His muse twelve years his junior has adopted a mask of an impassive expression as she gathers the strength to repel her controlling husband’s negative projections from every angle of their interconnected lives.
This message is transmitted by Gaston whispering about a woman’s face. As the camera pulls back to the group, we see they aren’t whispering about Ema, but the woman in the bed with half her face disfigured. The voices inform us that Palo set the fire destroying the right side of her face. By way of letting us eavesdrop, the director transforms us from observers to participants in the transformation by fire. The right side of the body is ruled by the left brain. The destruction by the child of indigenous origin symbolizes the linear thinking that must die in order that a new reality can be born.
The right brain unleashed in the narrative by way of the inexplicable destruction of the child is the entry point into the feminine transformation into a bisexual proactive agent of change, the hero of her own adventure. This is enacted in Ema’s sexual affair with the female lawyer conducting her divorce proceedings.
Palo is the indigenous boy adopted by the couple. Without appearing onscreen until the end, Palo is a strong Third presence between the warring masculine and feminine polarities. Having been already sent back to the orphanage when the film opens, his memory of parental failure is tossed like a football between them. The theme of the film takes shape: as the dream of a nuclear family destroyed by the fire if collective transformation. Within this collective transformation, Ema the prominent role of the visionary artist.
Midway through the film, we return to the opening apocalyptic image of Ema. As we watch her wielding flames, we discover she is addicted to setting things on fire, the human personification of Shakti destroying egos. She is intent on destroying her own reality structure, manifested by her setting her car on fire. She seduces the fireman who puts out the fire and rewards her destruction of her past with rides in the fire truck, symbolizing her ride to her destiny as a liberated woman.
As they begin a love affair, he teaches her to control the firehose, a metaphor for Ophiocus handling the serpent power. She gets pregnant and returns to Gaston with the news they are expecting. But first, she lays the plan for her own hero’s journey against the system that has judged her as an unfit mother…
García Bernal nails what might be the most difficult performance of his career. In the devastatingly intimate scenes with his costar, he is a controlling husband dumbfounded by a feminine awakening that he had an integral role in creating. The weaving in and out between extreme states of attachment and detachment is key to the character, as well as the push-pull dynamic of the relationship. The tension creates an uncertainty that propels the images forward. Bernal transmits so many emotions at once — awe, bewilderment, hate, love…to name a few — that he takes the observer on this journey as a crucial participant this colossal shift out of the patriarchal culture defined by the male gaze.
The struggle for Ema to break out of the confines of muse to the genius dedicated to breaking into new terrain results in the break up of the marriage and her departure from the dance troupe. Without her partner, she surrenders into the free form of her emotion, taking reggaethon to the street with her girl posse.
With a female pop tune reminiscent of the primordial emotion of Chilean Violeta Parra, these street dances are the most powerful scenes in the film. They echo the Chilean women rising up against abuse in public street performance, the very embodiment of female awakening. Their organization is linear, as opposed to the circular movements of Gaston’s choreography for the troupe. The linear trajectory foreshadows a destination to Ema’s hero’s journey that measuring up to a reflection on the current zeitgeist by an artist friend who was in Chile during the female protests: “It is like men don’t exist.”
Indeed. The final scene where the men are in the kitchen looking overwhelmed by uncertainty of a new reality where the women are relating their self-sufficient narratives while self-sufficiently setting the dining table. This is the reversal reflection beyond the male gaze that Pablo Lorrain has guided us into — the post-patriarchal world where women not only set the table, but they have a place at the head.
The past now represents claiming the freedom to make the passage over smashed egos, but this crucial journey into a full-bodied consciousness liberation from the male gaze may be the most difficult…
Yet, how hard can it be now that the filmmaker delivers the screen icon who can propel herself there on her own fuel?
Ema is available on MUBI until midnight May 31. You can watch for free by signing up for a free trial @ https://mubi.com