In anyone else’s body of work, the eerie psychological thriller Enemy would seem aggressively dour. But looking back at the career of Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director responsible for last year’s 153-minute child abduction saga Prisoners (TMT Review)and 2010’s vivid, war-scarred Incendies (TMT Review), it seems positively convivial. Enemy is Villeneuve’s shortest feature since 2009’s Polytechnique, and is similarly focused on a narrow conceit — in this case, a loose adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, transplanting the action to contemporary Toronto.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a socially awkward, depressive history professor named Adam Bell, who rents a DVD one evening based on the recommendation of an overly friendly colleague (the coworker’s suggestion, which is typical of Javier Gullón’s pointedly cynical screenplay, basically amounts to “I enjoy DVDs.”) But the initially aimless rental becomes a vehicle for Adam’s neuroses when he pauses the DVD on an extra dressed as a bellhop, only to see his own face in the frame. Unnerved, he goes in search of the actor and finds Anthony Clair, a man identical to him in every way apparent to the naked eye.
Enemy makes a good case for the unique horror of confronting one’s self, and it does so by pushing everything, from dialogue to scenery, to lugubrious extremes. When Anthony and Adam finally meet, they do so in a hotel room, and neither one feels compelled to turn on the lights. But these characters aren’t so much acting irrationally as doggy paddling through a mess of heavy symbolism. Unlike Saramago’s novel, there’s an over-arching theme involving spiders; also unlike the novel, the screenplay involves a plethora of unexplained loose ends. That combination of intense internal focus and willful obtuseness lifts some of the moral burden off of Villeneuve’s shoulders, allowing him to move beyond his familiar themes of justice and familial responsibility into a murky realm where those concepts are largely irrelevant. The result is a disturbing, anxiety-laden tale with psychological roots in German Expressionist horror films, and it’s totally absorbing.
Depending on your interpretation, Enemy concerns a total of four or five characters, and none of them are fully defined. Some, like Isabella Rossellini’s brusque matriarch, gain authority from being rendered in sketch form, while others don’t fare so well: Melanie Laurent, who was so vibrant in Inglourious Basterds (TMT Review), fades into the background as Adam’s girlfriend (a thankless role that calls for more nudity than emotive capability.) Sarah Gadon, who plays Anthony’s pregnant wife, is the closest we get to a sympathetic emotional center, her tearful frustration suggesting a latent fear of motherhood that’s mirrored repeatedly in the plot. Perhaps the strongest presence is Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s beautiful, shape-shifting score, which both heightens Enemy’s moodiness and makes its rare comedic moments (believe it or not, I laughed genuinely at least twice) bizarre and disorienting.
And then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the dual role of Adam/Anthony with admirable gusto. Gyllenhaal went on to play the tortured Detective Loki in Villeneuve’s more classically hard-boiled Prisoners (Enemy was shot before Prisoners, though the two films were edited simultaneously), and it’s easy to see why Villeneuve enjoys working with him. They seem to share a fascination with the horrors that come out when you dredge the bottom of the human soul. Gyllenhaal is most engaging as Adam, a damaged man who’s simultaneously wishy-washy and monomaniacal.
Enemy has its obvious quirks: the internet is just begging for a supercut of every time Jake Gyllenhaal touches his face, for instance. Villeneuve also has a particular way of shooting cityscapes and large structures that’s instantly recognizable. In Enemy he indulges in a few Inception-style sweeps up and over the craggy, dingy facades, but more frequently he lets them sit unmoving in the frame, monoliths that appear to sag under their own weight. All of this is shot through cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc’s yellowed filters, which make you feel like you’re lying in a street hemmed by filthy, soiled snowdrifts.
But that’s what makes the film so fascinating: despite his self-seriousness (and possibly because of it), Villeneuve is an inimitably stylish director, a weirdo with mass-market flair in the same vein as Paul Verhoeven or David Fincher. Like Seven or Starship Troopers, Enemy incorporates and is spawning some great iconography — tell me these aren’t awesome posters.
Enemy begins with the quote ,”chaos is order yet undeciphered.” And you’ll probably leave trying to make sense of the film’s bizarre, terrifying ending, which arrives accompanied by a very appropriate Walker Brothers song. But how wonderful is it to see a director use such daring tactics as massive CGI creations or literally doubling his lead actor, only to leave them for the audience to decode? Enemy is a demanding, imperfect film, but its flaws only make it more invigorating.