Alex and Emma
—About this Film
Alex and Emma is an impressive film which explores its themes within a fantastic structure. I was surprised at the negative reviews this film received, but I can understand why. If you go into it looking for a purely romantic, feel-good movie, you will be disappointed….but only because it does not stop there. The writers (4) and director (Rob Reiner) used advanced literary structures to make great statements about art and life. Additionally, I thought the jokes were quite funny and ironic. It seemed to have more comedy than romance (where the problem is typically the other way around) and the jokes were buried in the script so that you had to be listening to catch them. These were some of my favorite things about the movie:
The script follows a typical “frame story” format where the first plot line tells the same story as the second, and the characters correspond with each other. The viewer is asked to understand each story as a clue to the other, so that in the end, one arrives at the whole truth. The movie depicts Alex as a writer and Emma as his stenographer. As Alex dictates his story to Emma, the characters in the novel bear a striking (and intentional) resemblance to the characters in the film. In Alex’s novel, the main character Adam (Alex’s double) falls in love with the beautiful, charming, seemingly wealthy, hard-to-get Polina. While staying at her house for a summer as a tutor, he meets and also falls in love with the ever-changing “au pair” (Emma’s double). Adam (Alex) must later choose between the two loves of his life. Besides the fact that the four main characters have similar names, the novel he writes also reveals the changing nature of their relationship. Subsequently, both stories unravel together. The film also uses allegory as it explores the relationship between art (Polina) and experience or real life (Emma). Is it possible to have both? More on that later.
As a writer, I am particularly partial to the idea of using stories as a backdrop for reality. It can be said that stories are an excellent medium for expressing and exploring truths. Both the frame story and the allegory accomplish this feat. But, the parable also accomplishes this feat and that was the teaching format Jesus used most often. Jesus regularly explained complex truths using every day scenarios. In fact, I would say he avoided dissertations and lectures, and rather embraced the power of an allegory.
Commitment and Intimacy:
When we first meet Alex, he is portrayed as a desperate, poor, hypochondriac who has suffered a severe blow to his emotions. Having been dumped by his ex-girlfriend, he experiences writers block and cannot seem to find his muse. Under pressure from the Cuban mafia, he whispers a quick prayer in the closet, “God help me.” Enter Emma one scene later. He has lured her to his home under the false pretense of being a lawyer in need of a stenographer. Thus, he begins the relationship with a lie. Nevertheless with some prodding, Emma decides to help him. Alex explains (at her prompting) that his previous book was about a man so afraid of commitment that he thought it would kill him. Nothing has apparently changed. As the two continue working together, Alex suddenly asks, “Who are you?” revealing that over the course of several weeks, he has never taken the time to get to know her. Just as they are getting close, however, Alex tells yet another lie. Emma finally asks about the character Polina, and Alex claims she was an amalgam, a combination of many different women in his life. As Alex and Emma become closer and closer, Alex wants to develop a level of commitment and intimacy (as evidenced by his character Adam who becomes increasingly attracted to Anna because she is “comfortable”), but continues to fear it. It is not until Alex is faced with losing Emma forever (when the real Polina appears) that he finally faces his fears and admits that she is the only one he trusts.
Since we all have issues with vulnerability, intimacy and commitment, this movie appeals to everyone. How will we recover from a broken heart? Who is trustworthy in this world? Who deserves the investment of our time, energy and love? The same answers are true for everyone: someone who loves us despite our imperfections and who stands by their commitment to us. God is the most reliable because he is not tainted by the sin of humanity. He is able to love unconditionally (“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”) and loves to the end (“He who promised is faithful”).
Art vs. Experience
I saved this section for last because it is my favorite part of the movie, and because it is the most difficult to explain. The allegory was blatantly stated as Alex dictated the opening lines of his new novel, “Adam Shipley had given up on love. Art was to be his mistress.” In many ways, the mistress character, Polina, represents the pursuit of art and excellence in one’s field. It is no mistake that the character Adam is enchanted with the beauty, mystique, wealth and passion represented by Polina. It is also no mistake that she is somewhat of an illusion. Not only is she chronically poor because of her expensive habits, she also lacks a true passion that comes from commitment. Her flighty ways suggest that she is always on the wave of the next trend or opportunity.
Emma represents the antithesis of artistic expression as she tries to simplify, solidify and make concrete everything in Alex’s story. She expresses her opinion that he can’t write a story without knowing the ending first, consistently attempts to transform Alex’s characters into predictable archetypes, claims that she does not believe in love at first sight, and balks at the unrealistic and insincere parts of his story. She represents life on earth, the reality that people deal with daily, which I will call experience.
Alex represents a strange combination of the two, art being transformed by reality. When we meet Alex, he represents the true nature of art founded in idealism. He has a story, but can’t get it out on paper. He is broke. He is under pressure to perform. He is a gambler. In a conversation with Emma about the book, Alex claims that his main character (Adam/himself) prefers passion over propriety as he makes decisions about love. However, the art and experience quickly begin to merge. After accidentally ruining several pages of the manuscript, Anna tries to rewrite the pages in her own words. She learns that her own attempts are a poor substitute, and that experience without the beauty of art is harsh and unfriendly. Likewise, Alex experiences writer’s block in the middle of his story and must go “see the world” to unleash his imagination. He realizes that art draws from life, and that experience is necessary to continue his work. As their relationship grows, Alex begins to see that art (Polina) is flighty and unreliable, and that experience (Anna/Emma) has a deep strength. Yet, he loves them both equally. How will he choose one over the other? In a wonderfully creative way, the writers of this film weave the two together so that in the end, Alex has them both. By embracing Emma, he embraces the concrete, the experience of life, the commitment. And in doing so, he transforms into the purest form of art, one that is an expression of reality. His final plea to her is that he is a writer, and all he has is words to express his love (experience).
Wow, the concept of art vs. experience has about one million spiritual applications. Where do I start? God created humans in his image. Are we the artistic outflow of God’s heart? Although tainted by our own sin, we cannot deny that all of the good in this world comes from God. We did not create ourselves to love. Then, there’s the dichotomy of passion vs. security. In art, there is passion, and in experience, there is deep strength and knowledge. Who ever said that we should live without passion? Alex makes this point clearly. Life would be miserable without passion and adventure. God asks us to not lean on our own understanding (there’s adventure), but also asks us to use wisdom as we live our lives. After all, it’s a frightful thing to imagine what life would be like if we followed our unrestrained passion to its end. Now about marriage, the same concept applies. Marriage is the perfect institution created by God to give both stability and passion. And what about talents (art expressed through writing, singing, painting, accounting, volunteering, “your talent here” )? The concept of using one’s God-given gifts to their highest calling is a concrete teaching of Christ (Parable of the Talents). We are told not to waste our time here, but to use our talents, our finances, our intellect, and our resources to show God’s love to others. Much like this film suggests, experience is a rich resource. We can understand Biblical truths, develop empathy, learn valuable life lessons, and share those insights with others who need guidance.