FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Ema,’ ‘No Ordinary Man,’ ‘White as Snow’

A lavish portrait of a "hot mess" heroine; a look beyond the tabloids at Billy Tipton; a sexy, updated "Snow White."

|

Mariana Di Girólamo in the title role as Ema.

The Chilean director Pablo Larraín is best known for Jackie, his 2016 English-language debut that scored three Oscar nominations, including one for Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy. But Larraín’s latest, pandemic-delayed, effort, Ema, is more reminiscent of his earlier films—allusive, demanding works such as Tony Manero and Post Mortem that refuse to lead the viewer by the hand, and don’t shy away from complex, challenging characters.

While those movies took place during, and commented upon, the dictatorial reign of Augusto Pinochet, Ema takes place in present-day Chile, specifically IN the coastal city of Valparaíso.

Mariana Di Girólamo, strikingly sporting a slicked-back, platinum-blonde coif, plays the title role, a skilled but mercurial dancer in a company helmed by her erstwhile husband, Gaston (Gael García Bernal).

As the film opens, we’re thrust into a kaleidoscope of sound, image, and movement. Throughout its two hours, Ema never looks or sounds anything less than fantastic. There are lavish stage performances, flamethrowers, an array of lithe, feral characters; and striding—nay, stalking—through it all, there is Ema. If all this sounds a bit vague, that’s because Larraín uses the film itself as a sort of objective correlative for Ema’s unbridled energy. Straightforward narrative is rare to nonexistent, and many of the most crucial events in what story there is happen off-screen.

After a while, it becomes vaguely clear that the strains in the relationship between Ema and Gaston are caused by a series of occurrences that took place before the film begins. Due to Gaston’s infertility, the couple adopted a young boy. At a certain point, the child somehow caused a fire that injured Ema’s sister, prompting Ema to give the child back and creating a permanent rift in her marriage. That, to be clear, is merely the prologue to the ensuing psychodrama, in which our no-fucks-given (anti?) heroine plows forward, leaving sexual and emotional wreckage in her wake.

In other words, Ema is a character study wrapped in an enveloping, sometimes assaultive score, inside the vague costume of a relationship drama. With a troubled, magnetic woman at its core, it’s a natural successor to Jackie, but Larraín is clearly pulling back from the traditional Hollywood structure and look that Jackie used. (Then again, his most recent work has been the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story for Apple TV+, so it’s not as if he’s rejecting the mainstream entirely.)

Ultimately, despite Di Girólamo’s fearless and ferocious performance (coupled with some frenetic reggaeton dance moves), Ema feels unfocused and overindulgent. Which, again, may be its intention, in reflecting the powerful whipsaws its main character thrives on. But just because Ema is a hot mess, that doesn’t mean Ema should be. (Opens Friday, August 13 at Cinema 21)

***

IF YOU’VE HEARD OF BILLY TIPTON, it’s almost certainly because you (a) are extremely knowledgeable about jazz history, (b) have a photographic memory for ’90s trash TV, or (c) have a familiarity with the history of trans culture in America. Tipton, the subject of the deeply incisive documentary No Ordinary Man, died in 1989, at which point it was discovered, to his family’s surprise, that he had been assigned female at birth, and had been living as a man for his entire adult life.

An example of the way Billy Tipton’s life was treated in 1989.

When this news leaked, it became tabloid fodder: the story of a successful jazz musician who toured throughout the Western U.S. for decades, leading his own trio and recording a pair of albums, married with three children, all the while engaging in this deceptive gender masquerade. Of course, Tipton’s story is seen much more empathetically today, and No Ordinary Man uses it as a springboard to explore the experience of transmasculine individuals in America, and their representation in culture, during the last century.

Sponsor

Refreshingly, these explorations are done from the perspective of trans people, including a group of transmasculine actors who are invited by the documentary’s directors, Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, to audition on camera for the “role” of Billy Tipton. This diverse array of men, and the frequently potent performances they provide, puts the lie to the fact that there are not enough good trans actors to play trans roles. It also implicitly connects the art of theatrical performance to the life that Billy himself lived, and demonstrates what a meaningful figure he has become to the actors who familiarized themselves with his story. In addition, it helps to make up for the fact that no film footage of Billy is known to have survived.

The mainstream audience surrogate, in a sense, is Billy Tipton, Jr., the only one of Billy’s three adopted sons to not change his last name following the revelation of Billy’s secret. Thirty years on, he takes the filmmakers around Spokane, Washington, where Billy Sr. spent the last years of his life, and learns what an inspirational figure his father has become to the trans male community.

On the other side of the ledger, special scorn is heaped on the 1998 biography of Billy, Suits Me, by Diane Middlebrook, which numerous commentators accuse of misgendering Billy and otherwise failing to do him justice. What the documentary doesn’t mention is that the book was a finalist at the 1998 Lambda Literary Awards and was lauded by at least some reviewers as being “perceptive and sympathetic.” This doesn’t for a second discount the ways in which Middlebrook’s blind spots resulted in her depiction of Billy as a woman who dressed like a man rather than a transgender person living his authentic life. But it does illustrate the ways in which discourse in this area has evolved over the last 20 years, even within the LGBTQ+ community. (Opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.)

***

FAIRY TALES HAVE BEEN GETTING FRACTURED since before the Old Testament was written down, and, despite the tall shadow cast by Walt Disney’s 1937 animated version, the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been among those most frequently reimagined. The most recent is the sly, sexy, contemporary iteration from French director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) titled White as Snow.

Lou de Laage and Isabelle Huppert in “White as Snow.”

Our Wicked Queen this time around is none other than Isabelle Huppert, to the manner born as the haughty, red-lipped, wealthy hotelier Maud, envious of her pure and stunning stepdaughter Claire (Lou de Laage). When Maud’s jealousy kicks into high gear, she arranges for Claire’s murder, but the crime is interrupted, and the young woman ends up staying in a rustic cabin near a small provincial town. There, Claire becomes the object of adoration, affection, and/or lust by the men she encounters. (Can you guess how many?)

Turning the tables on the Brothers Grimm, though, Fontaine gives the formerly virginal Claire a sexual agency of her own. She’s not here to clean house for a pack of grimy miners; she’s here to explore her newfound pleasures, with gusto. One of the movie’s most amusing moments comes when, as in the classic animated version, cute woodland creatures are drawn by our protagonist’s voice, only not by her trilling melodies but her carnal cries.

That bit is emblematic of the way Fontaine toys with the tropes of the story. Another is the way that, among the septet of dudes that Claire encounters, it’s not entirely clear in all cases which of the prototypical dwarfs each is meant to correspond to. There are mirrors, there are apples, but this isn’t a simplistic transposition of the original tale onto a modern, feminist template. Instead, it’s a light-hearted look at the shifting definitions of female power and a fun showcase for its two leads’ talents.

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

Share:

Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on tumblr
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit
Share on linkedin
Share on print

2 Responses

  1. Wht’s the point of Marc Mohan’s juvenile photo rather than one showing him as an adult who has been here since 1991?

    1. Marty, our writers, editors, and photographers get to choose their own photographs, and are allowed to be as literal or whimsical as they like. (Cats have been known to make appearances.) Marc of course has his own reasons for choosing this photo, but I’d say it shows that (1) he’s deeply rooted, with a historical sense of life and culture; and (2) he has a well-developed sense of humor.

Comments are closed.

Sign up for our newsletter