There’s double trouble to be had in Denis Villeneuve’s compulsive and uncompromising psychological descent into a world of neurosis, nightmares and arachnids.
Loosely based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double as opposed to Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name (which Richard Ayoade adapted to moderate acclaim in 2014), Enemy is one of those puzzle box films that reward repeat viewings.
Ostensibly, the movie follows unfulfilled history lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) down the rabbit hole following the shock discovery that a bit player in a movie he’s watching is his apparent doppelgänger. Adam seeks out actor Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal), who may be his physical duplicate but appears more narcissistic and charismatic than the nervous and emotionally repressed Adam. Their encounter has unforeseen repercussions for both men, as well as for Adam’s girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) and Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon).
Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Villeneuve’s absorbing picture is a spider’s nest of different interpretations and perspectives in which individuality has become as precarious as one man’s collapsing mind.
The film’s opening intertitle “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” – a line taken from Saramago‘s novel – is given form by the numerous long shots of a city (in this case Toronto); that most chaotic yet fully formed of human creations that here is infected with a yellow, hazy sickliness, beautifully realised by cinematographer Nicolas Bodluc.
It has been argued (convincingly in my mind) the spiders seen throughout the film are both a visual and subtextual metaphor for a loss of freedom.
Adam teaches his class about the larger impact of this loss of freedom through his lectures on dictatorships, specifically their obsession with control and “censoring any means of individual expression”. On a more personal scale, Villeneuve shows us Adam/Anthony’s fractured psychological state and as the film continues it becomes apparent (at least to this reviewer) that Adam and Anthony are one in the same person, battling it out to see which side of his personality wins out. As a poster for the film implies: “You can’t escape yourself.”
Shots of overhead electrical cables and a cracked window signify a spider’s web and lend extra weight to the suggestion that Adam/Anthony is trapped and must confront his own identity.
In many ways, Prisoners, the title of Villeneuve’s and Gyllenhaal’s other collaboration would be a more fitting title for this film, although the name Enemy, like the rest of the movie, works on more than one level.
Since breaking out with 2001’s Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal has freed himself from the spider’s web of big budget nonsense like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (2010) to set himself apart as an actor who commands serious respect. Gyllenhaal has had his fair amount of detractors in the past, but the choices he’s making with the likes of this and Nightcrawler are genuinely exciting.
Gyllenhaal is tremendous in the dual role of two men both separate and conjoined and, crucially, makes you forget about the novelty factor almost immediately. Laurent and Gadon don’t have an awful lot to do, but lend themselves to the overall sense of disquiet. The influence of Vertigo has been acknowledged by Villeneuve and the fact that both Laurent and Gadon are striking blonds in the picture is presumably a nod to Hitchcock’s preference for women in his movies with that hair colour.
Furthermore, the film’s ominous visual palette is lent extra impact by the disquieting score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans which pulls you around as much as Bodluc’s camera.
Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits.