Everything Is Political: Pablo Larraín Discusses "Ema"

The Chilean director talks about his new movie, and the power of love, family, and ance.
Savina Petkova

Pablo Larraín's Ema is having a free virtual preview on MUBI in many countries on May 1, 2020. Following this preview, will be showing exclusively on MUBI in the United Kingdom, India, and other countries in May and June.

Above: Pablo Larraín. Photo by Luis Poirot.

Known for the incisive ways his films rework the past of Chile, and with Jackie (2016), that of the United States, Pablo Larraín now turns towards the present day. Ema is set in the cultural center of Valparaíso which lends itself perfectly to a vibrant, neon-colored, orgasmic tragedy. Melding the personal grief of a couple who have given away their adoptive child with the universal themes of loss and self-affirmation following it, the film’s emotional circuit mimics the serpentine streets of the city. Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer in her husband Gastón's (Gael García Bernal) company, but from the very outset a crisis seems to disrupt their life, marriage, and work. The film begins in the aftermath of a “failed adoption,” that of the couple giving back their son Polo (Cristián Suárez) and his assignment to another family. Ema and Gastón’s relationship deteriorates as they confront each other’s respective feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse, but it is the titular protagonist’s agency that drives the story into combustion. Torching a traffic light with a flamethrower, or forsaking the performance sterility of Gastón’s choreography for liberating reggaeton moves, Ema takes the lead of her own life and in every rebellious act a new creation of self emerges. 

With a breakthrough performance by Di Girolamo and a restrained but hurtful one by Bernal, Ema is a powerhouse of emotional clutter that seems to cosmically align chaos into order. The film is also a bold interrogation of the concept of nuclear family, adoption practices, and the deviation from societal norms. Bodies are shown here as political tools, and dance is seen as a political act, no less than any other form of disobedience to rigid structures. We talked to Pablo Larraín about his strong female protagonist, dance, and the gravitational force of politics and how it permeates his filmmaking, and, most importantly, life itself.

NOTEBOOK: Ema is set in the coastal Chilean city of Valparaíso, which appears also in your films Fuga (2006) and Neruda (2016). What does it mean to “know” a place, for you as a director that has returned to the same shooting location over time? 

PABLO LARRAÍN: It changes because we use different places in each movie. For Neruda, part of the movie was shot there but under very specific circumstances, since the characters were in transit. They were on the move, they got to Valparaíso, and then they left. Ema, unlike the other two, is entirely set there, entirely shot in that city, which is one I know quite well—I’m fascinated by it. I even think it’s not only beautiful but very strange and unique, a city that’s formed by hills—every hill has its ghettos and own life—and all of them lead to this flat part of the city. Valparaíso has all kinds of architectural influences from different centuries, if you can imagine. The Panama Canal was opened in 1914, but before that, if you think about it, every ship that was sailing from Europe to the West Coast of the U.S., or even to Japan, had to go to Patagonia, and then likely stop at Valparaíso. So, as a port, it had a number of influences from many, many countries over the years. It’s a city that was built and shaped by immigrants from different cultures, and that created a very particular kind of city: labyrinthine, very hermetic, and very beautiful, I think. It’s a place that’s full of color, where you could, you know, use and understand the space in a way that’s unlikely to find anywhere else. So yeah, it’s in the heart of the movie and it’s at the heart of the narrative. I think it’s another character of the film.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking about characters, the film’s story is about a broken family of three, but the title points to an individual. Is Ema, in this case, the film’s subject? 

LARRAÍN: I think it’s Ema. Yes, it’s her and her way she wants to express her love, her idea of family, of desire, and of dance too. I think that she is somehow, in the logic of the movie, the sun, you know? You could probably feel as if everything is built around her and if you get too close, you could burn yourself. So for us, she represents, in a way, Mother Nature—who is tender and sweet, but at the same time, very tough and determined. So I think it’s a movie about her in her own circumstances.

NOTEBOOK: With that said, is Ema a feminist film? 

LARRAÍN: Well, I don’t want to label it that way because I feel more as if I’ve made a movie that is sharing something. Ema was shot, written, and directed by men, so I would say that what we intended to do was share a vision on the issue, to express a sensibility and understand how important and strong the role of women in society is. Also, how essential it is, in so many ways, and the necessity of equality on every level. But more than a pamphlet on feminism, I believe it’s a portrait made out of respect and love that tries to, again, show a shared sensibility about its subjects. 

NOTEBOOK: How did you work with the main actors to portray a relationship aflame? They seem like children themselves, offences slide off their tongues as greetings, yet their world is airtight. What was the casting process like, as you’ve worked with Gael García Bernal before, but also brought in Mariana di Girolamo for the first time?

LARRAÍN: There are two things about it that made it very particular. One is, we all know that there’s nothing more private and unique than what happens inside of a couple’s life. And it’s very hard to crack that because we all know couples but we never know what happens in their intimacy, so that’s something I wanted to work with and try to discover here. And at the same time, I had an actor, like Gael, whom I love and admire and you know, this is our third collaboration together—he has a lot of experience, has made tons of movies—but Mariana never made a movie before. So it was a mix of these very unusual circumstances we got someone who’s experienced and someone who’s just starting in the movie world. At the same time, it was a very peculiar process because we didn’t give the script out to the actors, only their scenes day by day. So they didn’t really know the fate of their characters, their destiny, even though they had a general idea of the story, but not the details. That created some uncertainty in their performance because they didn’t know what they were heading to. It was just a matter of the present, what I required them to do, what I asked them to do was to be there and in that moment, and deal with the information they had and follow the scene. I didn’t do any type of rehearsal with them and went straight to shooting, and I believe that it somehow delivered a very specific style of performance, one that was, in my opinion, very spontaneous, and somehow, fresh. Obviously, we were working with very clear directions I was giving them but since they didn’t have the script, it was all a very unique process that I consider very beautiful.

NOTEBOOK: In such a way, as the film unfolds, the characters seem to reconfigure themselves again and again in front of the camera, through dialogue, or often, dance. How did you and your cinematographer Sergio Armstrong go about shooting the dance sequences in such a way that fragments of bodies and their movement is emphasized, as if they are expressions of a larger, socio-political narrative? 

LARRAÍN: There were a couple of things, actually. One is how beautiful and fascinating it is to see someone dancing! You get to learn a new element of their personality, a specific trait or character which you’ll never be able to do in any other way. You know, the way that we dance, it conveys so much about us and it’s rooted in the subconscious, as well as our physicality. So that was one thing that I wanted to work with—that, sort of, unknown layer that we all have covered up until we start dancing. Like, if you go to a bar and see your friends, people you know, the way they dance would tell so much about their personality, so the only way to know that is to see them like that. The other thing was to use the choreography, the space, and particularly the bodies as a political tool. I think the human body could be the ultimate and most sophisticated political weapon that we all possess and I felt that it was a very interesting way to do it. Also, I wanted to work with the dancing, and the streets, and build montages that could be beautiful and serve the story well.

NOTEBOOK: As for example, the film’s opening cuts back and forth from a dance performance, splitting it up in several parts, but later, the camera persists in witnessing a long sequence of reggaeton “street” dance to the song “Real” by Estado Unido, almost in a music-video kind of style. What kind of statement does this editing technique convey about the two kinds of dance and how they function in the narrative?

LARRAÍN: Yes, the movie presents a crisis in between “traditional” versus “new,” in the logic of a contemporary dance company. Gastón is a man who’s obsessed with presenting a very specific type of dance and some of the members of the company prefer to dance to whatever’s going on the streets, they want to be connected to whatever’s going on, to what people are listening to and dancing to. They want to express themselves in these circumstances, so naturally, that becomes a political statement. And then, in the practicality of the movie, yes, we kind of flirt at one time with the music video aesthetic—this was intentional, but we always stayed in the cinematic space. I wanted to have those choreographies and sequences unfold in a way that could, you know, add a layer onto the narrative and create an emotional device that would help the audience connect in a very visceral way. 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 when you’re dealing with things that are unexplainable, then you’re dealing with beautiful things that are more abstract and sometimes they also become poetic. 

NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk a bit about the music you used in the film and the political stakes of reggaeton. What was your research process like on the topic? 

LARRAÍN: It was [soundtrack composter] Nicolas Jaar who said to me: “Why don’t you look at Spotify and check what’s the most popular music in each country?” I don’t know how it is now, but back then eight out of ten tracks in a “Top 10” would be reggaeton, or they would belong to that musical world. So I realized this was what people actually listened to. So we went on to dive into a type of music that I didn’t know well and I didn’t love it very much. But then I ended up knowing a lot about it and eventually liking it, so I think reggaeton is an interesting type of music that can be understood and considered in many ways. Some people claim that it’s misogynistic, that it doesn’t treat women properly, and there are even more political ways of understanding it. That’s also part of the crisis the movie explores, and when the dancers want to act politically, they play reggaeton. What we want to say is, basically, that no one can tell you how things are and what you have to dance to. 

NOTEBOOK: Your film indeed reflects and rethinks already existent crises in life and art in relation to what is called “real.” In front of the social worker, Gastón describes his performance work as “a scene, not real life.” He also counters Ema’s accusation of his impotence by saying he gave her “a real son.” What would you say about the status of reality and things described as “real” in the film and filmmaking in general?

LARRAÍN: Reality is such a strange convention. It isn’t what it used to be, right? A movie can sometimes play with that and create a reflection of that reality, one that is usually broken and a substitution, which is often dangerous. And that’s what we wanted to explore—the illusion of reality that creates all kinds of emotional responses, whether it’s about love, parenthood, or friendship. I think it’s changing, I think Ema serves as a kind of witness of that evolution in relationships and what is really a family, and what do you need to consider a unit to be a family. Those questions I think are where the movie works and stays close to. 

NOTEBOOK: I think that all of your films so far challenge certain preconceived notions. And the characters are never afraid to step beyond these conventions by asking more of the reality they encounter. But what does that mean for the way fiction intertwines with the real world, in storytelling and cinema—does it somehow redefine it? 

LARRAÍN: No, I think it has more to do with storytelling. What you’re doing [as a filmmaker] is that you’re shaping time, right? As Tarkovsky said, we’re trying to sculpt time. To leave a trace of what you see and what’s around you. But at the same time, there’s a beautiful element of it, and that is being able to share your sensibility with others and sometimes it connects with more people than other times. But I do like strong characters and especially when they’re somehow shaping their own destiny, for better or worse, with or without mistakes, and that is what I think life is. We’re facing so many uncertainties and we live in this permanent existential crisis that I think cinema should portray that. And if you’re able to share that, then you’re probably leaving something that might become interesting to others. 

NOTEBOOK: That notion of sharing, or aspiring to share, I think, ties in to the politics of all your films. Some, like the Pinochet-era “trilogy” (Tony Manero [2008], Post Mortem [2010], and No [2012], are more politically overt than Ema. Whereas moving national politics to body politics, can this tell us more about the tensions between private and public life? 

LARRAÍN: That’s a good point and I do think the movie works in those symbols. It’s hard for me to talk about it explicitly because those are some of the things you, as a director, want to hide in the movie and let the audience discover it. But, yeah, I think everything is political and you have to acknowledge that. A character would always be a small metaphor, or a reflection of something that’s bigger, and that makes it all the more exciting. 

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