The Truth About Emanuel is as confusing a film as it is a beautiful one.
The movie spins a strange tale of 17-year-old Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) when she forms a unlikely bond with a young mother, Linda (Jessica Biel), who moves in next door. The girl is disturbed by her upcoming birthday, which is also the unhappy anniversary of her mother’s death. Linda is troubled by a mysterious past. The two women each crave what the other can give, the need to fill the mother-daughter starved holes in their lives, and these needs foster a warped codependence based on loneliness and illusion.
Emanuel opens the film with an explanation of her life’s challenge—the fact that her mother died giving her life, and how she has to live with that guilt every day, wishing it were not so.
“It’s me who pays. It’s on my tab. And it accumulates interest with every passing year.”
The second film from Italian director/writer Francesca Gregorini, The Truth About Emanuel falls prey to many of the most common indie film mistakes, a prime example that well-known faces, nice photography, a catchy soundtrack and a glossy finish cannot save a jumbled storyline or inept direction.
That said, there are saving graces to this film. The writing, particularly Emanuel’s inner dialogue, is evocative in a peculiarly endearing way. In fact, Emanuel is a peculiar character, and it is really only when this inner voice narrates that you come to like her a little. The rest of the time, she comes off as stilted, frustrating and abrupt.
Kaya Scodelario (Skins) gives a mixed performance in the title role, at times creating a rushed and uncomfortable tension, but in other scenes demonstrating a softness and sincerity that creates empathy for an otherwise unlikable character. As Linda, Jessica Biel performs similarly—one moment cold and stoic, the next overwhelmingly affectionate and familiar to the point of creepiness.
The stand-out performances seem to be those of the lesser male characters. As Dennis, Alfred Molina, the father, outperforms his daughter and wife with an ease that gives the audience a chance to recoup for a few minutes. Likewise, Aneurin Barnard (Citadel), as Emanuel’s boyfriend, Claude, is a pleasant distraction from the overplayed female leads. Dennis and Claude provide the only sense of normalcy in the middle of a severely twisted storyline of dominant women.
So much about this film—the set design, the staging of important scenes, the direction of the two main characters—is glaringly intentional, though the reasons why remain unclear. For instance, the film is set in modern day, but is strewn with vintage bits and pieces at a rate that baffles even the most retro-minded auteur. These bright shadows of the past, from the wall paper to the costumes to the baby pram to the bicycle, elicit a dreamlike feeling in their randomness, and one wonders if that was the creator’s intent? And if so, why?
The theme of The Truth About Emanuel is an interesting idea, and what the filmmaker is trying to convey makes sense—it simply takes too grand a leap to get there. Throughout the film, the audience is left bewildered, not knowing how to feel or what twist is being set up before them.
The Truth About Emanuel has a worthwhile story to tell, but the overriding sense at the end of the film is one of disappointment at a missed opportunity.
Director: Francesca Gregorini
Writers: Francesca Gregorini, Sarah Thorp
Starring: Jessica Biel, Kaya Scodelario, Alfred Molina, Aneurin Barnard, Frances O’Connor, Jimmi Simpson
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014