The first scene of Pablo Larraín’s film Ema shows us a traffic light on fire, and a woman looking at it from afar. She is carrying a flamethrower, contemplating the city. Ema is very young, she is dancing in the company of her husband, and she is walking the streets of Valparaíso to the rhythm of reggaeton. “I do what I want”, she says, but the fire that she starts invades her, it is a jouissance that overflows her between flames, dance, life, and which seems to have no limit.
Ema has abandoned the six-year-old son she had adopted a year ago with her husband due to his infertility. If Bernard Seynhaeve points to the question of whether wanting a child is desiring it, this story leads us to ask ourselves whether looking for it is loving it. Why did she look for it?… Perhaps she was looking for a limit to this excess of jouissance? It is clear that the limit did not operate. The child perfectly captured her passion for fire, trying to burn down the house, and even burning Ema’s sister’s face. The body event of the child took into account the body of the Other, his regime of jouissance.
“You taught him to set things on fire, her husband reproaches her. You abandoned him, you betrayed him, bad woman, bad mother…. You shut me out”. The relationship between them is marked by a mutual ravage and by the man’s inability to put a limit to the woman’s jouissance, which shows its face of horror. He is distressed by this act, divided by the abandonment of the one he names his son, while she proposes to look for another child.
What is he to her? A “human condom, an infertile pig. You’ll never give me a real child,” she tells him. “I gave it to you, you threw it away,” he says. It would seem that for Ema the truth of a child is located in the father’s genes, that the “body envelope” plays a fundamental role. But the end of the film will reveal that this is not the case either. She reproaches her husband that because of him they had to adopt a grown-up child, that because of him they could not tolerate him, that because of him “her body hurts all over”.
Ema’s body, a laboratory of jouissance, is the protagonist of this story. She enjoys her body through dance and through the bodies of others, no matter who… “You flirted with him, you put your tongue between his teeth, you undressed in front of him, you put your nipple in his mouth”, her husband tells her. “He was my son, my son can lick my entire body if he wants to,” she replies. “No, you don’t do that to a child”, he answers back… but it’s a late, worthless no, that wasn’t said when it was time, that didn’t operate.
Ema’s environment pushes her to get back with that child, without the latter’s actions appearing to matter. Burning the house, burning the sister’s face, “these are normal things, he is testing them”, according to the external evaluator who gave them the child for adoption. “Maybe you’re not fit to be a mother,” she blurted. When Ema asks her mother what to do (because she knows she is not fit to be a mother) we see how, in her story, with her mother and her two sisters, everything has been blended together, confused: “together, always together… mothers always have to be with their daughters, because families equal children, you can never separate the mother from the children”.
Faced with this push, Ema realises a passage to the act. She separates from her husband, locates the child’s adoptive parents (she is a lawyer and he is a fireman) and seduces, fascinates them in order to get Polo back. She has one last doubt, she asks her friends if it is the right thing to do, but they encourage her to go on, “you are going to war”, they tell her in a farewell-like embrace. It is indeed a kind of farewell to what seems like the last veil in the face of horror.
Loaded with the flamethrower, to the rhythm of reggaeton, we see what’s at stake for her: “it’s good to shoot flames” -with the equivocation between shooting and fucking-… “to burn in order to sow… a male dinosaur ejaculation”.
And she begins to burn, first the friend’s car, to provoke the appearance of the fireman. He is someone who opts for Good. She makes it clear to him that she is Evil, that she is going to horrify him. And indeed, she horrifies him, just as she horrified her husband, as well as the other woman, but at the same time she fascinates them. She seeks a pregnancy with the fireman, “so that he will be Polo’s brother”, but again what she seems to be looking for is a limit. She takes Polo away and has him cut his hair like her husband’s, in what seems like an attempt to make him less odd: “I wanted to be your mum, but I couldn’t”, she explains.
“Why with him, if he is a boy?”, the other woman asks her in tears. But even this abuse is not enough to keep her away from Ema, who suggests that the child she is expecting “can be theirs”.
Surrounded by her friends, she conveys a sort of family novel: she explains to her husband, to the adoptive parents, to the child, that she wanted to know about him and have a child to be his brother. They will accept this new filiation… looking at each other, consenting, in an attempt to sustain her? Ema puts the baby in the child’s arms and turns away from him, until the other woman quickly takes it away from him, and then she can hold it again.
However, the final scene points to the failure of this invention: we see Ema filling a jerrycan with petrol…
Translation: Linda Clarke
Editing: Polina Agapaki
 Seynhaeve, Bernard. “Child (not) Desired”, https://www.pipol10.eu/en/2021/02/11/child-not-desired-bernard-seynhaeve/
 Cottet, Serge. “El padre pulverizado” (The pulverised father). Virtualia nº 15, 2006. http://www.revistavirtualia.com/articulos/520/dossier-nuevas-ficciones-familiares/el-padre-pulverizado
 Bonnaud, Hélène. “Name-of-the-father?”, https://www.pipol10.eu/en/2021/01/20/name-of-the-father-helene-bonnaud/