Loosely adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, Enemy is the second 2013 collaboration between actor Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve, who made the child abduction thriller Prisoners together in the same year. This is by some distance the more satisfying film of the two, though the ambiguous nature and glacial pace of its story will undoubtedly put some people off. It was finally released in cinemas earlier this year in the UK, six months after the DVD and Blu-Ray went on sale, and around eight months after general release around the rest of the world.
We’re in doppelgänger territory once again, though in truth Enemy has little in common with the recent likes of Coherence, The One I Love or – I imagine – Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Villeneuve’s nods are to David Lynch, that great master of dual identity stories, and he opens proceedings with an unsettling scene set in an underground sex club that recalls the transformative Silencio venue of Mulholland Drive. He also casts Isabella Rossellini in a minor role, but it’s Villeneuve’s reticence with regard to explaining what is happening that most obviously recalls Lynch, though you could also point to the sudden outbreaks of surreal, dreamlike passages that suffuse: spiders are used symbolically throughout and feature in a variety of unexpected forms, from facial disfigurements (linked to one character’s wearing of a motorbike helmet) to the giant arachnid briefly seen wandering around Toronto (see picture above).
The Double featured Jesse Eisenberg playing opposite Jesse Eisenberg, and here Gyllenhaal also plays two different characters, one a distracted college history professor by the name of Adam Bell, the other a jobbing actor by the name of Anthony Claire. The former becomes aware of the existence of the latter, who it transpires is an exact body double, when a colleague recommends renting a certain DVD in which Claire briefly features as a hotel bellhop. Both men live in Toronto, and thus with a little online research the professor is able to find the address of the talent agency representing Claire, and poses as the actor in order to discover his home address. This is, of course, strange behaviour: given a similar predicament most people would certainly freak out, and assume that they have a twin, but would probably go about making contact in an entirely different way. Yet by this stage Adam’s moribund lifestyle and jumpy nature have been established and his snooping, duplicitous conduct smartly sets off a series of ripples through the film, echoed by later scenes which show Anthony or his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) stalking other characters.
The film is low on dialogue and heavy on mood and imagery, mostly filmed with a hazy yellow overlay. Conversations are largely awkward and stilted, including those between Adam and his long-term partner Mary (Mélanie Laurent), who seem to have little in the way of affection for one another (the same can be said for the bickering Anthony and Helen, with Anthony’s infidelity mentioned during one row; this is one of several hints to establish that the actor has a far stronger sex drive than the professor and, due to the pregnancy, there’s a suggestion that Anthony’s sex life at home is also far busier than Adam’s). Indeed Adam’s life generally seems to be a dreary, daily mix of commuting and marking papers, while the snippets of his lectures reveal a listless, monotonous delivery, his state of mind ironically emphasised by the fact that he is talking to his students about the effects of repetition in historical terms.
In terms of the imagery, a lot of it is as you would expect, given the subject matter. The opening and unlocking of doors features heavily: most obviously the key granting access to the sex club keeps appearing but Adam also struggles to get in the door of the building that houses Anthony’s talent agency, while when the two characters first meet Villeneuve concentrates for a short period on the motel room door that separates them (the last barrier stopping two worlds from colliding). Additionally the director very deliberately chooses not to show Adam opening the door for Mary when she arrives at his apartment on two occasions. Reflective surfaces such as mirrors and polished tables also feature, with the former allowing Gyllenhaal a De Niro-style moment as Anthony aggressively practices his delivery of the question ‘Did you fuck my wife?’ in the bathroom. Some of the images of Enemy, however, are more surprising and, as such, more intriguing. The spider is a particularly interesting motif; in dreams they are often supposed to represent cunning, but can also signify rebirth, death and cycles, and in that sense Villeneuve’s inclusion of the creature in different forms makes sense even if the film’s final shot is designed to leave you scratching your head. Instead of relying on two Gyllenhaals in a frame for insta-weirdness it’s the sightings of these over-sized spiders that linger in the memory, as well as related images (for example the slow zoom into a smashed car window that resembles a spider’s web).
Gyllenhaal uses his body language to differentiate between the two characters; where Anthony is upright, projecting an air of confidence, Adam is slightly hunched and shaky, his anxiety seemingly enhanced by internal dialogue; he stumbles through sentences and is flustered where Anthony is concise and clear. Yet although Anthony seems like the aggressor for much of the second half of the film it is Adam who is the more cunning and successful in terms of attaining a goal (partly due to the opposite ways that Mary and Helen react to events). Both make a series of calculated moves that are spookily similar but the final outcome of their short battle of wits comes as a surprise given that Anthony’s job as an actor is to impersonate and ‘become’ someone else entirely. I also liked the way Villeneuve intentionally blurs the picture on one or two occasions so that we’re unsure which of Gyllenhaal’s two characters are on screen; see, for example, the scene with Isabella Rossellini, who is supposedly playing Adam’s mother but chastises him for choosing acting as a career, rather than teaching. That’s just one small mystery in an intriguing, thought-provoking and carefully-designed puzzle thriller, one that furthers suggestions that both Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve are on the verge of producing something truly special.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Javier Gullón. Based on The Double by José Saramago.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini.
Cinematography: Nicolas Bolduc.
Editing: Matthew Hannam.
Music: Daniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans.
Running Time: 90 minutes.