What exactly is the truth about Emanuel? You may well ask, but The Truth About Emanuel doesn’t go to great lengths to answer that question. In fact, it doesn’t go to great lengths to answer any questions at all, and believe me, it begs plenty of them. The biggest one, I think, is how we’re supposed to interpret it. That’s because it’s driven not by plot, but by abstract emotions, and as such, it’s structured so that it’s impossible to understand who the characters are or what point the filmmakers were trying to make by developing them in such a particular way. I’m aware that some films are intentionally designed to be contemplative. But there’s a world of difference between contemplation and confusion, and I don’t think this is something writer/producer/director Francesca Gregorini gets. Either that, or I’m just dense.
Although the film is not a mystery, there are aspects that I’m fairly certain I’m not supposed to give away. Of course, even if I were to spoil its secrets, I doubt that would help you determine what it’s about. But, out of decency, I’ll refrain from revealing anything crucial. Let’s begin with the title character (Kaya Scodelario), a seventeen-year-old girl who obsessively broods over the fact that her mother died giving birth to her. She’s especially off-putting now that she’s approaching her eighteenth birthday, her dialogue a mixture of melodramatic musings about her own existence, most heard via narration, and wry comments to her friends and family. Her father (Alfred Molina), like all fathers of moody teens, doesn’t understand her yet never fails to be caring and attentive. Her stepmother (Frances O’Connor), married to her father for a year, is a woman whose domesticity and politeness masks intense bitterness and jealousy.
Into Emanuel’s life enters her new next door neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel), a single mother to a newborn baby girl. This is the point at which I have to be careful with my words. The film’s official website tells me that Linda bears a striking resemblance to Emanuel’s mother, although the film itself didn’t clue me in on this; unless I blinked at the wrong moment, the only picture I saw of her mother was shown from such a distance that I couldn’t possibly make out her facial features. Regardless, by accepting a babysitter position and continuously being in Linda’s presence, it’s obvious that Emanuel is trying to fill the emotional void left by her mother’s absence. Her stepmother misinterprets this as a lesbian attraction. I suspect many audiences make the same misinterpretation, especially if they know that Gregorini is herself a lesbian.
The plot synopsis on Wikipedia says that, by being in Linda’s life, Emanuel “unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world, of which she becomes the gatekeeper.” It is, indeed, a fictional world, but I dare not say how. What I can say is that, although initially fazed by what she observes, Emanuel quickly decides to take part and maintain the façade. It makes sense, actually; like Emanuel, Linda believes she doesn’t belong in this world, and has chosen to live in a world of her own. Although an interesting general idea, it doesn’t much hint at a concrete theme, and the heights to which you will have to suspend disbelief for it are dizzying. Indeed, the entire final act is astoundingly implausible, beginning with an impossible break-in and ending at a location unlikely to be gotten to considering the time of day and the rather complicated circumstances under which one of the characters is involved.
One of the film’s biggest issues is its title, which suggests that Emanuel is the only troubled character. If only I could reveal the one way in which Linda is even more troubled. It becomes a competition of sorts, challenging the audience to determine which of the two women is crazier. Apart from Linda, Emanuel will repeatedly have aural and visual hallucinations of water, which eventually escalate to a full-blown vision of her swimming deep beneath the surface of an eerily moonlit lake. During the last third, she will wax poetic about currents and flowing and fishes, so I can only conclude that water is symbolic of something. If only I knew what it was. There were times when I thought I had an idea, but specific scenes and lines of dialogue kept throwing me off. Why labor so mightily on a metaphor when it’s only visible to yourself?
There’s also the issue of extraneous characters with no apparent significance. One is Emanuel’s friend and co-worker, Arthur (Jimmi Simpson), a shy germaphobe who eventually comes out of his shell and begins dating Linda. The other is a boy named Claude (Aneurin Barnard), who Emanuel begins encountering on train rides and soon develops a crush on. It’s not adequately explained what it is about Claude she finds so appealing, and ultimately, we’re at a loss to see him as anything other than a means to an end. He’s a red herring, appearing to have narrative importance when in fact he contributes absolutely nothing. Then again, with or without either of these male characters, the story would be no less obscure and impenetrable. Those capable of making sense of The Truth About Emanuel should be proud of themselves, for they’re infinitely more perceptive than I am.