Film of the week: Enemy

Two Jakes: Gyllenhaal goes Janus-faced in Denis Villeneuve’s spidery adaptation of José Saramago’s The Double, says Jason Anderson.

Jason Anderson

from our January 2015 issue

Enemy (2013)

Enemy (2013)

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.” Spoken in a conversation that is otherwise not included in Denis Villeneuve’s deeply beguiling adaptation of José Saramago’s novel The Double, the line used as Enemy’s epigraph summarises the challenge the film poses to its audience.

That’s true whether the viewers in question already delight in deciphering puzzle films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) or Inception (2010) or come to Enemy hoping for a more clearly signposted mystery thriller along the lines of Prisoners (2013), the Canadian director’s other recent teaming with star Jake Gyllenhaal. In either case, they may react to Enemy’s aggressive disdain for storytelling conventions and cheeky refusal to cede its secrets with the same air of befuddlement that greeted the film’s premiere in Toronto in September 2013, when several moments of stunned silence followed the final spidery surprise.

First published in the original Portuguese in 2002, Saramago’s novel is similarly unforthcoming about the cosmic machinations that have resulted in two entirely identical men sharing the same pocket of the space-time continuum. Instead of pondering the reasons for this aberration or its potential impact on our commonly held but perhaps equally absurd delusions about our uniqueness as individuals, the novel’s unidentified narrator busies himself with an account of the tightly wound protagonist’s efforts to discover the identity and whereabouts of his double while concealing his own role in this unprecedented predicament. (The reasons behind the plague in Saramago’s Blindness – whose 2008 film adaptation was co-produced by some of the team behind Enemy – were similarly obscure.) The protagonist’s floundering results in a comedy of errors (and manners) whose seemingly light-hearted tone belies the existential horror at the story’s core, as well as the cruelly tragic nature of its finale, which leaves him essentially imprisoned in his double’s existence.

Enemy (2013)

Enemy (2013)

In their adaptation, Villeneuve and Spanish screenwriter Javier Gullón retain much of Saramago’s dry humour while amplifying the dread with elements of their own invention. As a result, the matter of Enemy’s own identity becomes nearly as slippery as that of its two identical protagonists. After an alluring intro set in a sex club that seems rather less classy than the iconic example in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the film settles into a more wryly satirical mode, with teacher Adam’s classroom talk of Marx and history’s repetitions juxtaposed with glimpses of his personal hamster wheel of glum streetcar commutes and joyless couplings with girlfriend Mary. When he comes across the existence of his double, actor Anthony, his actions push the proceedings into the shape of a mystery story, albeit one with a rather hapless sleuth who is soon hopelessly trapped inside “the plot of a detective novel with no known criminal”, as Saramago’s narrator puts it.

Like the source material, Villeneuve’s film contains more than a few traces of sex farce, too. After all, our store of ribald tales would surely be drastically reduced if not for the abundance of incidents involving mistaken, concealed or switched identities. Anthony – whose history of philandering is suggested in a fraught exchange with his wife Helen – certainly recognises the potential advantages of his situation. Following Mary on to a streetcar, he sizes her up with the air of a predator who is absolutely certain of his hunting prowess. He understands that he already possesses the most perfect of all disguises. (In one of the film’s smarter reversals, it is Helen who proves to be the bolder lover, when she plays along with Adam’s far from persuasive impersonation of her husband.)

Enemy displays a similarly playful attitude towards its place in a lineage of films with twin or otherwise identical characters, a tradition that seems especially rich in Toronto (where this film is set) thanks to Jeremy Irons’s double act in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) and Tatiana Maslany’s astounding performance as a multiplicity of clones in the BBC America hit Orphan Black (2013-).

Enemy (2013)

Enemy (2013)

It was thanks to another piece of synchronicity that Enemy arrived on the festival circuit at the same time as Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg facing off against himself. But compared with the performers in these examples, Gyllenhaal has relatively few encounters with himself, and Villeneuve is largely uninterested in wowing viewers with the sight of two Jakes sharing the frame. In fact, he goes so far as to skip the opportunity for a fight scene – Saramago’s actor is far rougher than the timid teacher, immobilising him with an armlock during their confrontation over his nefarious plans.

And whereas Eisenberg’s pair of rivals in The Double are locked in the ego-versus-id dynamic typical of twin tales, the personalities of Adam and Anthony do not boast so many easily discernible differences. Hesitant and nervous in his manner, Adam may display little of the actorly swagger we see in Anthony, but the two men share a certain aloofness and a cool determination to see their decisions through, even when their later ones prompt a growing degree of identity confusion. This is most startling when Adam visits his mother, played with a marvellous hauteur by Isabella Rossellini. When she makes a disdainful reference to his acting career, both Adam (if it is actually Adam) and the viewer rightly wonder who he’s supposed to be. There’s the possibility that she’s been Anthony’s mother all along.

Appropriating the self-dividing protagonists of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2003) would hardly count as the only move that Enemy borrows from David Lynch’s playbook. His influence is just as palpable in the oddly languorous pacing of many scenes and the hard, washed-out look of Toronto, whose curvy cylinders of glass and concrete reaching up into smoggy skies of yellow could almost pass for Lynch’s Los Angeles.

Enemy (2013)

Enemy (2013)

The Silencio-like club and the arachnid motif are Villeneuve and Gullón’s most conspicuous additions to Saramago’s story. Whatever the spider’s symbolic significance may be (perhaps we’re meant to think of a Jorogumo, a creature that transforms into a human seductress in Japanese folklore), the motif prompts some of Enemy’s most striking images. The shiny face of a spider-woman glimpsed in one of Adam’s dreams is cleverly evoked by the sheen of the motorcycle helmet that Anthony wears to conceal himself while stalking Mary. Likewise, the web-like appearance of a cracked window in a car wreck forecasts Adam’s final surprise.

All this is highly indicative of a filmmaker who’s having a grand old time. That might come sometimes at the viewer’s expense, but it’s hard to begrudge Villeneuve his indulgences when they yield this much pleasure. The director seems consistently delighted at this opportunity to shift away from the high-minded seriousness of Prisoners and Incendies (2010) and demonstrate the same flair for the absurd he showed in Maelstrom (2000), a similarly audacious, arresting and confounding drama that may not have had any spiders but did have a dead fish for a narrator.

Playing a character who’s a far cry from his saucer-eyed sociopath in Tony Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014), Gyllenhaal faces the tricky task of conveying the subtle differences of two men whose identities are thrown into flux. The result is his most nuanced performance since playing another sleuth caught out of his depth in Zodiac (2007). Like David Fincher’s masterful descent into the irrational and the unknowable, Enemy offers no tidy solutions, only a very sticky web and a hungry creature that’s ready to swallow you whole.

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