ema: si mi cuerpo es real, mi lengua es real
By Suzie Beckley
An exploration of dance, chaos, and identity in Chilean director Pablo Larraín's 2019 film
The first time I watched Ema, I was reminded of the song “I’m Not Dancing”, by London artist Tirzah: an underground foray which (mysteriously yet successfully) blends the trusty primary school recorder with a garage beat. Although it is the creation of a Brit, geographically worlds away from Chile’s pacific coast where this film takes place, “I’m Not Dancing” seems to encode similar messages to Pablo Larraín’s latest protagonist:
“I’m not dancing, I’m fighting
I’m not shining, I’m burning
I’m not touching, I’m feeling
I’m not dancing, I’m fighting”
From the opening shot of a traffic light in flames, through interweaving dance sequences, acts of arson, neon-lit sex scenes, and clips that guide us through Valparaíso’s colourful streets, Ema is a film which fully embodies what it is to dance, fight, shine, burn, touch, and feel.
Directed by Pablo Larraín (perhaps better known for his biopics of Jackie Kennedy and Pablo Neruda) the film follows Ema, a twenty-something dancer, whose adopted son has to be sent back after a terrible accident. Whilst it successfully depicts a conflicting and sometimes alienating set of morals on her behalf and resists being shoehorned into one genre, it was primarily its representation of dance that drew me to the film and brought these lyrics to mind. For Ema, dancing is not just dancing but a means of fighting against limitations, finding collective and individual freedom, and moving beyond the corporeal to embody every part of herself.
In this corporeal re-imagining, dance is a subversive act, an escape route, and ultimately a means to a morally-questionable end. Ema and her friends seek this physical freedom through dancing to reggaeton music - a contemporary cornerstone of Latin American youth culture - but spurned by Ema’s choreographer husband Gastón. In an incensed monologue he labels the genre as “prison music” and the reggaetoneras as “bad dancers” - in doing so bluntly voicing his own classification of high and low culture. Whilst reggaeton continues to be a divisive genre, often critiqued for its objectification and embodiment of machismo, its unshakeable popularity throughout Latin America and beyond also sets it out as a reclaimed genre which belongs to the people. Indeed Gastón is the victim of his own prejudices as the dancers turn their back on his company in favour of the streets, pavements, basketball courts and cable cars of Valparaíso. Dancing has become a public act, moving away from its monetization in the warehouse where they rehearse and the theatre where they perform. Removed from the private sphere and Gastón’s gaze, it is re-rooted in the public, where it began. And the city becomes alive with dance.
Within these sequences Ema dances at the centre or lead of the troupe, both alone and part of a group, presenting the ways in which dance can bring both individual and collective freedom. As a character who is going through an evidently painful and socially taboo experience (a failed adoption) dancing is presented as the only time that she can truly be herself and find her essence.
Between dance sequences, the camera often rests on her vacant and motionless face. Void of expression, it is in these shots that her personal pain and confusion surrounding her relationship and identity begin to reveal themselves. She is lost without movement. But when she dances, her eyes shut or become fixated, her limbs syncopate with those that surround her, and it is through this physical movement that her mind can also move again.
Her friends and fellow dancers play an important role in this healing process. They are there to dance for themselves, for Ema and for their love of reggaeton. With a pack mentality which often presents itself in animalistic ways, this crew protects itself from the objectification of the outside world and from machismo.
Within this process of female bonding, the (now infamous) orgy scene takes centre stage. Under neon lights multiple bodies intertwine in a chaotic yet calming blend of desire and intoxication. Whilst this scene could invite a critique of a certain voyeurism on Larraín’s behalf, it is the bodies which dominate the frame and thus become a part of a collective corporeal identity. With no particular gaze to guide the audience, the reggaetoneras escape the objectification of the individual physical body and within this scene, dance and sex merge together as politically and socially subversive acts. This is a film which allows its characters to embrace taboos, in both uncomfortable and empowering ways.
It would be easy to feel confused or alienated by these ruptures, and even more so by Ema’s character. She comes across as a sort of neo anti-heroine, in Larraín’s words “an unorthodox pietà”; a displaced mother who bends the rules through dance and sex to eventually rebuild a family. This unorthodox approach is woven into how and why she dances, and in an interview with MUBI Larrain expands on its significance:
“As you know, there are certain elements like dance and music, that do not enter solely through your eyes and ears but also through your skin and fingers, your nose... I don’t know, it’s just so beautiful precisely because it works on the level of the unexplainable”
And that’s the crux. As much as we can theorize around dance and what it signifies, it is incomprehensible to the thinking mind. It relies on a fundamental need to let go, to move your body in inexplicable and strange ways, and to relish in this ambiguity.
Echoing this ambiguity are the lyrics and synths of E$tado Unido’s “REAL”, the film’s lead track which also mirrors the mixed messages held within Ema’s choreography:
"Si mi cuerpo es real, mi lengua es real
Si mi pelo es real, mi voz es real
Si mi pecho es real, mi sombra es real
Y si mi hambre es real, mi lucha es real"
[If my body is real, my tongue is real
If my hair is real, my voice is real
If my chest is real, my shadow is real
And if my hunger is real, my fight is real]
Like Tirzah’s lyrics they become a refrain; a chant for the modern reggaetonera whose dancefloor is the city (it also carries echoes of last year’s viral feminist sensation “Un violador en tu camino” by Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis - albeit a more liberal rather than radical version). Larrain’s alienating flâneuses are not there to perform for the viewer, nor to repel them, but invite them to question what it is to dance, and moreover what it is to occupy such a fluctuating and ambiguous physical presence, revaluing the stereotyped genre of reggaeton and the power of dance itself.
All stills from Ema, Juan de Dios Larrain Fabula Films, (2019).