You Can't Know the Answer in 'Enemy'

Director Denis Villeneuve's most successful film to date is a baffling mood piece, a puzzle designed with no solution.


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Jake Gyllenhall, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Studio: A24 Films
Release date: 2014-06-24

Above: Modified from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival poster

Toronto is Big Enough for Two Jake Gyllenhaals

Denis Villeneuve directs Enemy with a jazzy soundtrack that matches the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as history professor Adam Bell, a sad trombone of a human being if ever there was on. He's also a man who discovers his exact double living in the same city.

The picture is spotted with brief, surreal interludes that appear to be Bell’s nightmares; the ending suggests that one or two of them might be real, but Bell seems either oblivious or resigned to the dangerous world he inhabits at the film’s outset. We know early on that Gyllenhall will be playing two characters, but Bell is imagined well enough that the double, an actor named Anthony Claire, might not be necessary. One could watch a whole film only about Bell himself—although depending on one's interpretation, Enemy might just be that film.

The doppelgängers meet only a couple of times in a shadowy motel room, where Villeneuve turns the frame into starkly colored comic book panels. Twisting and turning as they discover shared birthmarks, scars, moles, Bell and Claire becomes lines of action in the dim yellow light. Bell buckles into a soft curve against Claire’s hard forward angle, particularly after a confrontation that plays out after Claire rehearses it to himself, pacing back and forth while the camera follows.

This is a dread-filled picture with very little space for humor, but Gyllenhaal finds it. His performance continues to reward just as the film’s piecemeal dream sequences fascinate. Claire has a manic, one-sided conversation with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) after returning from a jog. The focus is on her distress, but he yammers away about other runners and an elusive package of blueberries in the background.

Earlier, Bell’s first attempt at contacting Claire gets Helen on the phone instead, and their conversation that keeps tripping up feels remarkably true to an impossible scenario. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he mumbles. Helen, still thinking she has Claire on the line: “What?” Bell: “What?”

But Enemy belongs to its exteriors as much as to Gyllenhaal. Villeneuve, a native of French Canada, shoots Toronto with an easy familiarity for its particular sun-bleached griminess, with high rises stretching up out of the dust and smog like the old ruins of a futuristic theme park. Toronto has served as a double for many locations onscreen over the past few decades, but Villeneuve’s film is one of the few exports to communicate a sense of the city with distinct character.

In the source material, Jose Saramago’s original novel The Double, the story took place in an anonymous metropolis in Latin America. Here, particularly in a striking dream sequence that views the city from high above, Toronto is both more itself than it has ever been and transformed into some mythical dystopia.

The domestic spaces of Bell and Claire—another study in opposites, one as murky and disarrayed as the other is clean and mannered, practically a model apartment unit—are the subjects of their conflict, as meeting on neutral territory proves unsatisfactory for Claire. Briefly, the film assumes a third, alternate point of view that also indicates what the events of the film might mean: Helen, played by Gadon with intelligence and frustrated anguish.

She suspects Claire of cheating, an obvious problem in their past, one that she can’t help anticipating will come round again. She is pregnant and seems terribly aware that she no longer has the option of leaving him.

A daylight scene where Helen tracks down Bell to his college campus is among the film’s most alienating moments. She watches Bell emerge from the building and sit on a bench opposite her. His shirt is loose around the waist and he seems exhausted and sweaty. She has seen him before, and so have we, but not through her eyes. He looks at her and smiles, not knowing who she is. Helen seems all the more alarmed as he tries to exchange pleasantries. We’ve been watching the movie for a while; she’s just coming in.

Ostensibly, Enemy belongs to an informal subgenre of the psychological thriller that the Internet has dubbed the “mindfuck”. Popularized by the ready access to search engines and discussion boards where tedious explanations for what just happened can be accessed and consumed while the credits are still rolling, it’s a categorization that consumes both populist films, such as the works of Christopher Nolan (whose Memento and Inception have inspired many a flowchart parsing out their plots) and artier fare like Mulholland Dr., which is perhaps the most worthwhile analogue to Villeneuve’s approach.

Mulholland Dr. contains a simple explanation for the disorienting turn it takes in the final third, but it’s not reducible to “and then this happened”. Like Enemy, the explanation is there, but it doesn’t fully satisfy. It’s easy to say that Claire and Bell are merely super-ego and id playing out a classical conflict, but that misses how invested Villeneuve is in deepening his film’s three main perspectives and in unraveling the one-way course of his plot. The film spreads its many limbs in several directions. Follow one, and you lose another.

Bell, the put-upon sadsack who can’t communicate with his girlfriend, is acting out a story that readily recalls the stuff of ‘30s and ‘40s American film noir, where haunted men fought for their masculinity with violent and often tragic results. Instead of building to a showdown between the doubles or some other bad end, however, Villeneuve has made a film that nestles in the spaces between the scenes of a noir. It doesn’t feel the need to investigate a threatening conversation between neighbors in an elevator, or to even briefly illuminate a possible conspiracy.

Rather, it watches as two men struggle to make sense of each other, then follows them home. It waits for them to fall asleep. It lays eggs.

Befitting its frustratingly limited theatrical release, the Blu-ray release of Enemy contains only an obligatory 20-minute featurette on the film’s making, featuring an obliging Villeneuve and an agreeable assortment of behind-the-scenes footage. For a film as alternately pitch-dark and washed-out as this one, however, a Blu-ray edition is the only purchase that makes sense, and the transfer keeps its images both legible and striking. It also sports an original poster design as cover art, far more evocative and attractive than the giant-head design featuring Gyllenhaal on the standard DVD.


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