Emanuel And The Truth About Fishes is deeply, satisfyingly strange. In a way, it’s a validation not just of Sundance, but the whole film festival system that is now our main way of finding out about distinctive new talent. It also tells a story based in large part on a single plot development that, while revealed fairly early in the film, is still intended as a major surprise–so consider this a SPOILER ALERT and proceed with eyes open.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is the name of the girl at the center of the fantastic tale. Her name is spelled in the masculine style because her parents believed they were having a boy, and when her mother died in childbirth, her widowed father (Alfred Molina) kept the name they’d planned. Emanuel has had the name tattooed on her arm, as a reminder of the one decision about her life her mother was able to make.
When we meet Emanuel, her father has, after more than a decade alone but for his daughter, married again, to Janice (Frances O’Connor), a well-meaning stepmother whose conventionality ignites grenades of disdain from Emanuel. The girl is sullen at the best of times, clearly intelligent but with no plans beyond high school, living deeply within her own head. Then a new woman comes to the neighborhood, a single mother named Linda (Jessica Biel), and when Emanuel is pressed by Janice into babysitting for Linda’s infant daughter, everything changes.
Because–last chance, SPOILER ALERT–Emanuel quickly discovers that Linda’s daughter Chloe doesn’t exist. Linda, although seemingly normal in every other way, lives with the very detailed delusion that a doll is her living child. She listens for Chloe on the baby monitor, frets over her colds, knows exactly how to get her to sleep, and in all other ways treats her as utterly real. Only Emanuel knows her secret (Chloe is always “sleeping” when anyone else comes near), and something in her sparks to the terrible loss and emptiness rattling just behind Linda’s eyes. She keeps Linda’s secret, and the movie becomes the story of the bond that forms between the two women, and the way it changes both of them.
The director Francesca Gregorini has only made one other film, Tanner Hall, which she co-wrote and co-directed with Tatiana von Furstenberg. Tanner, set at a private girls’ school, wasn’t terribly original (although it was notable for introducing Rooney Mara before she came to the attention of David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, etc), but it played at the Toronto Film Festival and was acquired for a mostly VOD release, which gave Gregorini some industry credibility. That helped Emanuel get made, and the new film is a far more striking and assured piece of work. With a premise as strange as this, the question was whether it could be sustained into a satisfying narrative, and although Emanuel will go over the top for some, Gregorini does a fine job of developing suspense and combining both Emanuel’s and Linda’s compulsions into an ending that makes emotional sense.
Scoderario could well be as much of a find as Rooney Mara was. She’s an English actress who starred in last year’s barely-seen revamp of Wuthering Heights, and here she holds the movie together, convincingly troubled and compassionate. Jessica Biel, finally given a meaty film role, delivers the performance of her career, dancing on tightropes of madness and suburban friendliness, approachability and profound seclusion. The supporting cast, which apart from Molina and O’Connor includes Jimmi Simpson as a co-worker of Emanuel’s and Aneurin Barnard as her first boyfriend, is excellent. Despite its limited budget, the film has a rich look from cinematographer Polly Morgan, and a few special effects sequences relating to Emanuel’s obsession with water and those fishes look as though they come from a much more expensive production.
Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is an art-house picture, and won’t be to everyone’s taste even there. It takes big risks that will leave some audiences behind. It’s exactly the kind of exciting, revelatory film that Sundance exists to showcase.
There are any number of ways the story of Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat could be told to make a potentially fascinating movie, from the sociological to the political, the personal to the satiric. The laziest–one might even say the most cowardly–would be to simply repeat the events as they were originally presented to the public with no point of view at all, and that, sadly, is the approach taken by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and screenwriter Andy Bellin in their new Lovelace.
Linda Lovelace burst on the pop culture scene in 1972, when her feats of fellatio in Deep Throat made that movie not just just the most successful porn flick ever made, but one that was viewed by people like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and joked about by Johnny Carson and Bob Hope. At that time, Lovelace (that was the name of her Throat character; her real name was Linda Boreman) was presented as the cheerful public face of the new sexual freedom. Several years later, she published a memoir revealing that she had been the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband Chuck Traynor, and had been exploited by everyone involved in her pornographic success. The film Lovelace does nothing but run through the same events twice: in the movie’s first half, as a peppy sex comedy, with laughs earned from the Italian porno makers and their gangster financial backers, and then the same events shown again in the second half as, basically, a remake of Bob Fosse’s Star 80, with Traynor as the Eric Roberts character (in what’s probably a meta-gag, Roberts himself makes an appearance as the lie detector operator hearing Lovelace’s story of abuse in the second half), and Linda constantly being beaten and abused. There’s no attempt to reconcile the two versions of Lovelace’s life, or to suggest how one Linda could have coexisted with the other in a contradictory but human way.
It doesn’t help that neither half of Lovelace is very good. That’s not the fault of Amanda Seyfried, who plays both halves of the story with complete commitment, and who mostly manages to be convincing as a relatively innocent New Joisey girl out of her depth (although in the scenes that recreate–nonexplicitly–sequences from Deep Throat, Seyfried is more a good actress playing a bad one than one who’s believably bad). There’s also capable supporting work by Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria and Chris Noth as the pornographers. But Peter Sarsgaard, as Traynor, just gives us another version of the sleazoid character he’s been playing since at least Boys Don’t Cry in 1999, James Franco contributes perhaps the worst Hugh Hefner impersonation ever committed to film (clearly the movie’s lawyers reviewed his scenes with great care, and there’s only a softpedaled implication that he, too, abused Lovelace), it’s anyone’s guess what the filmmakers were thinking when they cast Adam Brody as Harry Reems, and Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick, as Linda’s parents, might as well have been posed with “American Gothic” clothing and props.
The movie’s recreation of the 1970s is done very much on the cheap, with little success or ingenuity in disguising that fact, and technical credits are no better than adequate. But what makes Lovelace such an overwhelming disappointment is that given incredibly rich material (the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat provides some of the fascinating history that’s been left out), and a protagonist whose complexities could have been the stuff of great drama, the film has nothing whatsoever to say about any of it. The people who made this movie should have just kept their mouths shut.