I don’t know if this is a brilliant thriller, or just a brilliant tease. But brilliant it is, and so merciless in its manipulation of the audience that, were it a person, you might want to slap it–which might just be the response director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón wanted. What is exceedingly clear is the greatness of Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performance, the skill of Villeneuve’s direction, and the overwhelming atmosphere they both create, one which suggests Hitchcock, Cronenberg, and Kafka, one which suggests perverse manipulation, existential horror, and cosmic confusion. The film’s epigraph, “Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, is delightfully obnoxious and perfectly chosen.
After an opening which shows a mysterious club where seedy-looking men watch a masked nude woman step on a tarantula, we see the life of Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), a history professor who seems to lack enthusiasm for his job (he see him give the same mediocre lecture multiple times, I assume to suggest the repetitive rut of his life), and who is only mildly more engaged by his girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), who comes to his drab apartment where they sleep together when he’s not occupied grading papers. Their relationship may be on rocky ground; it’s unclear (get used to that). A colleague recommends that Adam rent a film called Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, which seems to be a throwaway comedy. But that night, Adam dreams a scene from the film, and waking, goes to his computer (whose charger light pulses like something out of Videodrome), and rewatching the scene, realizes one of the extras looks exactly like him. Some research confirms that the actor, Daniel St. Claire, is indeed his exact double.
Adam goes to St. Claire’s talent agency and is able to accept a package intended for him, and discovers St. Claire’s real name (Anthony Claire) and home address. He goes to Anthony’s apartment complex and calls his apartment, but Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) believes he is Anthony playing some kind of prank. Adam tries again later, and initially earns a threat of police intervention from Anthony, but when Helen expresses a fear that Anthony is actually covering up an affair (he has apparently cheated on her in the past), he contacts Adam and they arrange a meeting in a hotel room. They meet, and are shocked by their resemblance, but when Anthony asks Adam if he too has a scar on his chest, Adam flees; Anthony follows him, and stakes out his apartment, ultimately discovering Mary, whom he tails to her place of work.
The boundaries between the two men begin to get shaky. Helen goes to the university where Adam teaches, and encounters him; she is profoundly unsettled by his appearance. Adam also goes to visit his mother (Isabella Rossellini), who contradicts his stated dislike of blueberries (which Anthony enjoys) and suggests he abandon his goal of being an actor. Anthony, meanwhile, becomes convinced that Adam is the actual father of Helen’s child, and tells Adam that he and Adam will swap places for a few days; he’ll take Mary on a weekend getaway while Adam will live in his apartment, and when he returns the two of them will resume their past lives and not meet again. But the best-laid plans of mice an’ men gang aft agley.
I do not detail the ending merely to avoid spoilers, but because the ending is so bizarre, so out-of-nowhere yet so justifiable in the context of this mad film, that to elucidate it would be to take away much of the delight of the first viewing. Suffice to say the ending forces one to re-consider just about everything that precedes it, yet given the nature of the story, this is not a cop-out but indeed a very reasonable ribbon to tie up this package of mindfuckery. For this a true mindfuck of a film, and the relationship between film and viewer is mirrored by the contrast between Anthony and Adam. Anthony is arrogant, exultant, and manipulative, while Adam is frustrated, confused, and finally warily accepting. Anthony may be a mindfucker of his own, but as the film ends, Adam seems to have chosen to go along with it. And so, after some reflection, do I go along with the film’s outrageous dicking with the viewer.
I haven’t read The Double, the José Saramago novel on which the film is based, but based on a summary I’ve read, Gullón chose to make the film’s narrative even more elliptical and elusive than the novel’s. The film raises questions aplenty, but answers pretty much none of them. Is that a bad thing? I’m not suggesting that someone who comes away from this film wanting answers doesn’t “get it”, but if you’re willing to go along with the film’s devilish nature, you’ll probably enjoy it a good deal more.
Confusion abounds. We see Gyllenhaal in the opening club scene, but is it Adam or Anthony we see? (They are totally the same; they even wear the same beard) In the scene with Gyllenhaal and Rossellini, is it Adam or Anthony who is visiting his mother? I think it’s implied Adam is the subject of the scene–but are we really sure? Adam refuses to reveal if he has a scar or not–a difference from the novel, where the two men are indeed exact duplicates down to the scar–and one wonders if perhaps they are somehow separated conjoined twins. Or are they clones? Or is there some other paradox at work? Or is it all just a nightmare? I have my hunches, but knowing this film, a second viewing would undermine them totally.
Obviously, it’s a thought-provoking film. As I said, I question whether it is actually a great film or just a great mindfuck–the **** is a bit tentative, but I’ll stand by it–but again, whatever it is, it is great. The script is structurally very clever (Matthew Hannam’s editing is also accomplished), and while I have a few issues with it–the dialogue tends to be a bit drab, and there’s a fair number of scenes where people are asked questions, especially yes-or-no questions, and either don’t answer or say “you’re crazy” or “this is fucking crazy”…a major pet peeve of mine. (Side note: See Mud for an excellent example of a film that doesn’t pull that shit.) Granted, the refusal to give clear answers adds to the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
Villeneuve creates a fantastic mood throughout, and Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography adds immeasurably to it. The use of queasy yellows and greens establishes the uneasy mood, and the use of darkness is impressive as well–the first meeting between Adam and Anthony takes place in a darkened hotel room (lit only by the afternoon sun), and the darkness adds greatly to the sense of disorientation and menace. Compared to the haunting gloom of Villeneuve’s previous film, the marvelous Prisoners, the tone of Enemy is more surreal, more playful, more sick. Both films, though quite different, show a brilliant grasp of the thriller, and I can only hope Villeneuve continues to explore the genre. The score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans helps as well; the main theme, a snaky theme played on the clarinet (I think) sets an off-kilter mood without making the impending manipulations too obvious.
Without a virtuoso performance from Gyllenhaal, the film would’ve fallen apart, and it goes without saying that he’s remarkable here, making Adam and Anthony unique, yet increasingly similar at the right moments as the lines between the two men blur. Adam’s internalized malaise and Anthony’s laid-back confidence (which gives way to manipulation) are both played perfectly here, with little touches sprinkled throughout (Adam’s shabby dress, Anthony’s occasionally florid gestures) that enhance the performance as a whole beautifully. Gyllenhaal really deserves to at least be considered for an Oscar, but the film will probably never be so much as a blip on the Academy’s radar.
Gadon is very strong as well (she won the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, as did Villeneueve, the cinematography, the editing, and the score–Gyllenhaal, shockingly, didn’t win), especially when one considers how her role here is almost the exact opposite of her work in Cronenberg’s (amazing) Cosmopolis; there, she was ice-cold, cynically aware of her husband’s bullshit yet at a loss (out of indifference and/or bewilderment) as to how he might be redeemed. Helen, however, is like Adam something of a representative for the audience, confused, frightened, suspicious, yet utterly bewildered. The scene where she meets Adam and is truly unable to tell if he is who he is, or is just an elaborate prank played by Anthony, is particularly powerful, as Gadon expresses a great confused horror with great economy. It’s a subdued performance, and a very moving one. I’m not sure it tops her work in Cosmopolis, but she really is good here.
Laurent has relatively little to do, however, and Rosselini has little more than a cameo role. No matter; Gyllenhaal and Gadon bear the film most successfully.
Perhaps Enemy was just an enigmatic lark Villeneuve used to cleanse the palate after the bleakness of Prisoners, but it turned out nearly as well as that film–if it lacks that film’s ambitions and thematic complexity, it makes up for it in strength of execution–and comes highly recommended. Just be prepared to do some pondering afterwards. And if you don’t like spiders…consider yourself warned.