Interpretation: Ema (2019) - A Treatise On Narcissism
Updated: Aug 28
Disclaimer: Spoilers Ahead!
Since Ema is a woman I will use feminine pronouns for narcissist. Apologies in advance.
Pablo Larraín's Ema (2019), the tale of an anarchic predatory reggaetón dancer has an uncanny resemblance with a film released only a few months before- Joker. Joker too revolves around a character who rebels in outrageous fashion against a system designed "to cut people like you out". Not only do both Joker and Ema defy general understanding they both use dance as a bodily expression of them breaking free. In fact with her dyed back brushed hair, maroon tracksuit and the sheer anarchy in her eyes Ema can very well be mistaken as an alternate universe Joker. In both the stories the cities the characters inhabit play an essential role in their creation; the chaos within them a reflection of the chaos all around them. The character of Ema is not easy to empathize with, especially since the film does not shy away from showing the disastrous consequences that Ema's actions often hold for the ones around her (something that Joker fails to do). While Joker tracks Arthur's metamorphosis into Joker by building up on his mental health issues and social rejection Ema provides no overt clues leaving the audience to ponder upon her feelings and motivations. One possible explanation is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The film chronicles Ema's journey into motherhood; her dive into anarchy fuelled by a frustration against the prevailing systems; her transition from avant garde dance to reggaetón; and her transformation from the Vulnerable type Narcissist to the Grandiose type Narcissist. Let's try to explore exactly how the film is similar to a narcissist's tale.
Ema leaves a lot of questions unanswered, including some that are crucial to the story. As the film progresses and things start to fall perfectly in place for her the passivity of the other characters starts to get to you. The grandiose otherwordly projection of Ema seems too flamboyant to have any real emotional depth. As I wondered what the director's intentions might have been I realized this is not the first time I've tried to make sense of an incoherent, exaggerated, and in many ways one-dimensional narrative. Having worked as a psychologist I have had the privilege of listening firsthand to the stories of multiple narcissists, and if you have ever been close to a narcissist you would know how incoherent, egotistic and problematic their stories sound (before recovery, of course). You are left with more questions than you can possibly list- questions that are rarely answered or even entertained. To narcissists the world revolves around them; the people in their lives are defined by the roles they play in the narcissists' narrative; everyone seems to be at fault except for them; and most importantly have a grandiose sense of self considering oneself entitled to more and often unfair privileges simply by virtue of being themselves. In the narcissist's version of events their talents and achievements are exaggerated; their shortcomings and failures minimized if not omitted; the people in their life lack any nuanced identity except for the roles the narcissist has assigned to them. Watching Ema you cannot help but feel that this is Ema's rendering of the events and may not align with how things played out in "reality". Whether or not Larraín intended it, he created a treatise in narcissism that at least on a superficial level succeeds in capturing a narcissist's self-reflection.
The criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) according to the DSM-IV-TR are as follows:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
Requires excessive admiration.
Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
You can compare the above list with the DSM-5 criteria here. I'm no fan of the DSM, but used with caution it can prove to be a powerful tool.
Incoherence and Irrationality
We don't ever get to know why Ema wishes to be a mother so bad, why exactly Gastón and she decided to give Polo back or why they chose to adopt a 10 year old Colombian kid in the first place. If Ema wished to breastfeed she could have easily adopted a much younger child. The film does not explore obvious plot-points like a retaliation from Aníbal or Raquel who simply accept their fate and surrender to Ema. They could have just reported Ema to Child Protective Services for kidnapping Polo; the entire Ema incident might even have rekindled their own love, seeing as they have been portrayed as lonely creatures longing for companionship.
How exactly did Ema get hold of a flamethrower? The one that Ema operates seems too good to be homemade. The burning of traffic lights and statues may seem political but the same explanation does not fit the burning of swing sets and merry-go-rounds. How come incidents of pyromania at a public park not garner police and media attention? Shouldn't people be concerned about their children playing there? Ema's arson spree strangely has no consequences at all. She lights up a basketball ring right beside a housing complex. How come nobody saw it? Aren't the basketball players out there also part of the street culture who would want to find out who did this? We see the gang having time to pose for selfies at the burning sites and Ema torching something up in the streets of a residential neighbourhood in broad daylight, yet we never see her running off or hiding. It is as if the world is hers for the taking an no one can even imagine doing anything about it. Her God-like status is also present in her interactions with the other characters which I will come to shortly. If I were to sit across Ema listening to her, I would imagine the pyromania to be a fantasy of hers which never actually took place.
Regardless of the glaring inconsistencies and obvious exaggerations a narcissist will expect you to believe in her story just like the film expects the audience to believe in its world.
Ema feels entitled to be a mother, even though she isn't quite cut out to be one. She is completely oblivious to a child's needs and is in total denial of the lasting damage that her actions have done to Polo. She never once stops to consider how her Machiavellian scheme would affect Polo. Similar patterns can be observed in the case of Ema's biological child too. The fact that she doesn't have a job or that her toxic relationship with Gastón does not provide a healthy child-rearing environment doesn't seem to cross the mind of this brilliant strategist cum tactician driven by fierce motherly instincts. Let's not even get into the possibilities where Aníbal could have disavowed this child, or if reported Ema would have had to deliver the baby in prison.
Not only is Ema entitled to being a mother, but to everyone's admiration too. No matter what she gets up to no one in her life dislikes or hates her, not even Gastón. Ema's former colleagues and the world at large may look at her as if she "suffocated a dog with a plastic bag", but the people in her life never once disagree with her. Neither of the three people at the receiving end of Ema's schemes/irresponsibility (Raquel, Aníbal, Paulina) ever directly blame Ema for anything and seem to reconcile with her all too easily. Their frustrations are aimed at the situation and not at Ema. None of Ema's friends or family are appalled by Ema's sociopathic tendencies; in fact they seem to be actively supporting her. Her friends seem only too happy to quit their dance troupe or give up their cars for her. We don't ever see Ema returning any of these favours. Even throwing out María naked (who doesn't fight back) changes nothing within this girl gang with such a strong sense of sisterhood and fraternity. This is one of the key needs of the narcissist- being loved and admired indiscriminately by everyone around.
In the film Ema seems to be the only one getting into anti-social behaviours with her pyromania, interpersonal manipulations and direct violation of legal orders. The girl gang accompanies Ema in torching things, and clicks selfies at the burning sites but never gives it a go themselves. Gastón, although complicit in Ema's actions regarding Polo, doesn't really get into any morally questionable behaviour other than being a shitbag of a husband to a dehumanizing wife. The only other character exhibiting criminal behaviour is Polo. It is as if being antisocial and ruling over the world is a divine right reserved only for Ema and as her extension Polo.
The film has been shot in music video fashion complete with incoherent episodic narratives, dominant and grandiose projection of the central character, rhythmic editing, and a focus on spectacle rather than content. At a little later than one hour the film adapts a full on music video approach as Ema and her gang take over the city from buses to bars to stadiums to streets to arenas. While it is a very common human tendency to imagine oneself as the star of a music video or a film, for the narcissist this imagination can reach delusional levels. Ema's initial reggaetón dancing scenes are preceded by rejections (first at the school and then by Marcela), thus hinting at sublimation. Only later in the film is reggaetón displayed as an empowering medium rather than a coping mechanism thus indicating her transition from the Vulnerable Type to the Grandiose Type.
This brings me to Ema's interpersonal dealings where this transformation becomes exceedingly evident. Ema's initial empathetic stand towards Paulina vanishes as she goes from offering up one litre of her blood to coldly telling her sister that her burnt face had nothing to do with the decision of giving Polo back. The film starts off with Ema facing a series of rejections- from the child services to her school colleagues with the final rejection coming as Gastón practically firing her. As the film progresses everyone starts to get drawn in to Ema's charisma and vitality, including the school principal and psychological evaluator who have decidedly minor roles to play in Ema's scheme. Notice how Ema doesn't really "get a job", she beguiles the principal into giving her a job. At the evaluation the psychologist opens up more than Ema in a scene that could easily have been edited out. What purpose did this scene serve other than to exhibit Ema's prowess? Neither Raquel nor Aníbal are unfaithful spouses looking for some action; initially none of them displays any inappropriate interest towards Ema, yet these lonely miserable creatures are simply unable to resist the charismatic Ema and find solace in her. In the scene where Sonia explains reggaetón to Gastón notice how the camera captures Gastón looking away, exhibiting not only Ema's win but also Gastón's defeat.
Gastón suggests that Polo loved Ema only because he considered her beautiful. Ema's beauty and youth is of prime importance to her- the factors on which Ema's grandiose self-image is centred. The beauty and vitality of youth is what enamours everyone with Ema. This is why the film omits Ema's pregnancy. A film focused on a woman's relentless quest to be a mother cuts out the pregnancy, the delivery, and the first moments as a mother simply so the audience don't get to see Ema putting on weight.
Maríana Di Girolamo explains in the MUBI post preview interview, "Ema is like the sun," the same words later reiterated by Pablo Larraín in an interview with MUBI Notebook. I'm sure that is exactly how Ema sees herself, as the centre of the galaxy with everything else revolving around her, hopelessly drawn to her inescapable gravity and grateful for the nourishment she provides.
The manipulative tendencies of Ema are obvious which fall under the narcissistic spectrum due to the grandiose nature of it. An unique feature of Ema's manipulations is that it involves no lies or deception. She has no requirement for such primitive tools. In Ema's world nobody will ever be able to resist her and that is exactly how she will conquer the world. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the sex montage where Ema is quite literally conquering everyone. By the end of the film Ema's dominance has long been established and has been accepted as the new normal.
Ema's pathological need to manipulate reaches sociopathic levels with Polo. She doesn't try to deny Gastón's accusations of her flirting with Polo and practically kissing him when they went to pick him up at the orphanage. Although it is never explicitly stated in the film Ema might have undressed in front of Polo and once put her nipple in his mouth simply to attain his love. It is quite possible that Ema feels this need to conquer and beguile everyone because of deep rooted unconscious beliefs that she won't be able to "get" anything normally either due to feelings of being undeserving or due to insecurities about her abilities.
The film is made to see Ema's and only Ema's perspective. It contains no scene where Ema is not present, and rarely any scene where she is not the centre of attention including the reggaetón dance sequences where Ema is the leader in most cases. None of the other characters are ever brought into focus, even though a closer look at Raquel and Aníbal would have significantly aided the story. All the other characters have been portrayed as one-dimensional and lacking any agency, except for Gastón who represents the trashy hand that life has dealt Ema. Another recent film Pain And Glory (2019) also makes the mistake of not paying enough attention to its supporting characters, but in Ema this has been taken to a level where the entire existence of the supporting characters seems to be defined by how Ema sees them- Marcela's words "I am the system, motherfuckers" establishes her as a representative of a system trying to separate Ema from her son; Ema's colleagues at school are an extension of the very same system that is "made to cut people like you out"; Gastón is a "human condom" who is as impotent in his choreography as he is in his marriage; the reggaetón gang members are Ema's fellow queens but also her disciples who follow her into whatever pyromaniacal or nymphomaniacal fantasies she may have without ever requiring Ema to return the favour; the mother is the only person she can turn to for advice, the home she can return to; the sister is merely an unintended victim; Polo is the ever innocent child seeking motherly affection despite his clearly antisocial tendencies; Polo's new parents, the school principal and psychological evaluator simply prey.
Feelings of Emptiness and the Need for Love
One of the things that struck me while watching Ema is that for a film centred on Ema and her character development how little we get to see Ema alone. If we consider the meeting with Raquel to be the beginning of Ema's schemes then the film can be divided into two parts- before and after Ema's decision to take matters into her own hands. In the first part Ema gets 8 minutes 55 seconds of alone time in a segment of 33 minutes 17 seconds. In the second part Ema gets only 5 minutes 24 seconds of alone time within a 69 minutes 16 seconds segment (yes, I counted). While in the first part Ema's alone scenes give us an idea about what Ema may be feeling in the second part it is filled mostly with scenes of pyromania, dancing, stalking or simply walking. This is a clear evidence of Ema's transformation from the Vulnerable Type Narcissist to the Grandiose Type Narcissist, increasingly so if we consider the fact that only in the first part did anyone other than Ema enjoy any independent camera attention. This can easily be explained by the narcissist's needs to be surrounded by people and her fear of being alone. This fear of being alone is probably why Ema wishes to be a mother so bad.
Why exactly does Ema feel such a strong need to be mother? The film does not answer this question but I'll guess it is rooted in feelings of emptiness fuelled by fantasies of unconditional love. This is not to say that anyone needs to feel empty to wish to be a mother, but in Ema's case she seems interested only in the status of being a mother rather than in motherhood. As discussed in the Entitlement section Ema doesn't spare much thought on how to go about raising a child, and seems preoccupied with an idealized vision of a mother-child relationship. Polo actually seems more comfortable with Gastón than with Ema. The image of Ema resting her head on Polo's shoulder in the taxi gives Polo the appearance of the mother and Ema that of the child- a reverse Pietà of sorts establishing the fact that Ema needs Polo more than he will ever need her. A narcissist often tries to cope with chronic feelings of emptiness by trying to possess things or people in a way that the possessed object or person can be called her "own". This is exactly why Ema throws María out, who invaded her marital bed. An unhealthy fixation on family and family values is observed since narcissists often give in to the belief that family, and only family can ever truly love them; a belief fuelled by the already broken family dynamics which facilitate the development of narcissism. Add to that some brainwashing by the mother ("Children make a family. And moms can never be separated from their children. That's how the world's always been and how it should stay") and you have the perfect motivation for Ema to charge into battle. In the very next scene Ema meets up with Raquel thus starting off her crusade for motherhood. The ending scene at the petrol station hints at more pyromania, implying (at least to me) that Ema's needs didn't get fulfilled even after she has had a "real son". Maybe being a mother was never what Ema was truly after.
One can ask why would Ema wish to stay with a person like Gastón? Shouldn't a narcissist prefer someone who worships her, like the tribe of reggaetón dancers? The answer is no. A narcissist although addicted to worship will never be able to actually love or respect someone who worships her because she would consider the worshipper to be a fool. Deep down (I hate using these expressions) a narcissist hates herself. The fact that Ema is acutely aware of her own failings is evident in the scene where Paulina's hair is getting fixed. In addition to this being the only scene where Ema literally tries to vanish into the background (notice how the camera blurs her out, the only instance in the entire film), she inadvertently blurts out "It's not my fault." In her attempt to deny the truth she repeats these words a second time before taking on a more aggressive denial strategy. Other times defences of rationalization ("Burn in order to sow again") or regression ("I do what I want") are used. Ema rarely gets into confrontations- she fails to speak up for herself to Marcela, to her colleagues, to even Gastón in the presence of others. The only times Ema speaks out is to Paulina at the salon where only her family is present, and to Gastón when they are alone. Not only do her fears of direct confrontation push her towards a more manipulative disposition, it also renders her incapable of functioning outside of a "safe space". This safe space is exactly what makes Gastón so enticing. Remember how Ema instinctively calls for Gastón on seeing Mati (the cat) stuffed in the refrigerator and Gastón is the one who gets his hands dirty? Gastón is the only one who can see Ema for who she is and still love her; the only one who will never truly be appalled or disgusted by Ema even after seeing her darkness in its full glory. Gastón's own abusive nature ensures that things will never get too one-sided for him to leave her. A husband like Gastón comes out of a combination of two primordial needs of a narcissist- first to have someone in her life who will never leave no matter what, and second to continuously be able to abuse and exploit someone. I would not rule out daddy issues either since Ema's father left her at 4 years of age and Gastón is a good 12 years older than her.
As with any personality disorder the causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder has not yet been pin-pointed. Studies point to both genetic and environmental factors. If we look into Ema's history her father left her at 4 years of age. Her mother practices lying and deception as well as is evidenced by Ema's refusal to belief her mother when she relates a childhood incident in the bus. The mother doesn't protest either implying that disbelief is a normal part of their relation. She then goes on to emphasize the importance of the mother child relation to Ema which makes Ema surrender to her mother and ask for advice on how to deal with the predicament. Her mother's reply "Do what I would do. That's what you have to do" inaugurates Ema's scheme. This scene in all probability hints that the mother too practices interpersonally exploitative behaviours and the one who enlightened Ema on the ways of manipulation. Her mother's disorder, if any, may even have been passed down to her genetically.
Ema succeeds as an experiment for exactly the same reasons that it fails as a film. We don't get to know why Ema wishes to be a mother so bad, or why she gave Polo back simply because Ema doesn't know it herself. The out-of-the-world presentation of Ema is her own grandiose self-projection. The film doesn't portray any other character in a way that viewers can empathize with or understand them because a narcissist will never allow other characters in her story to have any life independent of the labels she has assigned to them. Whatever complaint one may have with the film- incoherence, one-dimensionality, lack of emotional depth- all of it can be traced directly to Ema's narcissism. It is Ema's beliefs that the film highlights- beliefs that the world is against her, that everyone is at fault except her, that she is an unstoppable force of nature whose irresistible beauty and charisma will always ensure victory. Whether or not you like Ema or agree with her is irrelevant- she will conquer you and there is nothing you can do about it. This is exactly what the film tries too- to captivate audiences through the style and glamour no matter what they feel about the content. I seriously doubt even the filmmakers themselves can provide a better explanation for Ema's behaviours than "I do what I want". This is a narcissist's tale straight from the horse's mouth.
If you are still in doubt and require additional evidence for the film's narcissism I would urge you to check out Maríana Di Girolamo's post preview interview and Larraín's interview, both on MUBI.