Being a fan of director Francesca Gregorini’s freshman directorial effort with co-director Tatiana von Furstenberg, “Tanner Hall”, I was more than anxious to see what she could and would do on her own with THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL. I am far from disappointed as not only does Gregorini, who also wrote the script, have a knack for casting, but her visual eye is stunning. A film built with strong, confident and lyrical visuals, Gregorini delivers a psychological study framed within a coming of age story that walks a tightrope of dark humor, drama and designed ambiguity that captivates. She is a gifted storyteller indeed.
Emanuel is a 17 year old girl living with her father and his new, much younger, wife. Melodramatic in her own right, Emanuel has a pathos that stems from the death of her mother during childbirth, something that leads her to believe and continually avow “I killed my mother.” Living an at times zombie-like existence of numbness, Emanuel’s interactions with others are few and far between, but when they are, sarcasm is the watchword of the day.
In an effort to placate her father and “join society”, as well as satisfying her own yearning curiosity to belong, Emanuel gets herself hired by her new neighbor, Linda, a single mother who bears more than a striking resemblance to Emanuel’s mother. Quickly forgoing a deep bond, Linda is warm and maternal to Emanuel, strengthening their connection and Emanuel’s desire to spend time with her. But something is amiss. Disturbing situations and events come to light. Hallucinations take hold for more than one person. And Emanuel must face her ultimate foe – herself. Is she living life, or a fantasy?
Kaya Scodelario dazzles as she exquisitely maneuvers and manipulates Emanuel’s emotional dance of surrealistic dream and sorrow. She nails the deadpan sarcastic beats with as much perfection a she creates a numbed daze and ghostly specter of someone living but merely passing through life. Superb performance. Equally impressive is Jessica Biel who, as Linda, delivers one of the most impressive performances in her career. Calculated, methodical, balanced on an emotional precipice, this is a genuine surprise and treat from Biel.
Alfred Molina is solid and secure as Emanuel’s father while two other supporting players often steal the thunder of scenes. Aneurin Barnard as Emanuel’s boyfriend Claude, adds a stalkerish edge that fuels the ambiguity of the film as a whole while Jimmi Simpson is a delicious haunting delight as Arthur, making one continually think of James Spader both in look and performance.
Written and directed by Gregorini, THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL is spellbinding. Finding that perfect blend of surrealism and realism, Gregorini allows visuals and production design to speak volumes as together with cinematographer Polly Morgan creates a hyperstylized palette of beauty that celebrates literally and figuratively the essences and meanings of water, light and color. Framing is core to the production and is metaphorically telling. An underwater sequence is breathtakingly eerie and melodic. Tackling a multiplicity of themes, Gregorini is respectful and truthful in her approach, never under valuing the importance of any.
Completing the picture is a score by Nathan Larson that is as equally haunting as the characters and story themselves. It is a perfect tonal match to the bandwidth of the film as a whole.
Although some of the dialogue feels forced and repetitive at times with some reactions trope and stilted, THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL casts a rich and lingering specter on one’s own thoughts long after the curtain falls.