Review: Enemy (2014)

Enemy is a call back to the best Canadian mind-benders of the past. In David Cronenberg’s body horror pictures of the 1980s and 1990s, Toronto was not the generic stand-in for Chicago and New York that it is too often in movies today. Back then, it had its own unique atmosphere, where the growing urban centre and towering lakeside buildings were a nest for paranoia and dark fantasies. Denis Villeneuve clearly understands the potential of Toronto as a unique setting. In the past decade the urban sprawl has grown out of control and dozens of impersonal high-rise condos line the lakeshore like towering prison cells. Enemy capitalizes on this labyrinthine metropolitan landscape to twist a tale of splintered identity and shadow selves.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a melancholy college lecturer in a stagnant relationship with a detached girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). One day he watches a video on the recommendation of a colleague and disturbingly finds a man looking identical to himself in the background of a scene. He investigates and discovers that the man is Anthony Claire, a small-time actor who looks and sounds exactly like himself.

Once the film introduces Anthony, Villeneuve has fun with the conventional doppelganger aspects of the tale. Adam tries to get in contact with Anthony and accidentally meets his wife (Sarah Gadon) without understanding who she is. Anthony, initially leery of meeting Adam, also becomes fascinated with the other man. He thinks Adam pathetic, but also finds perverse opportunity in his predicament.

Adam and Anthony look exactly the same, but like all good doppelgangers, their personalities are opposite. Anthony’s confident while Adam’s not. He’s full of sexual virility, while Adam is hardly capable of satisfying his gorgeous girlfriend. Adam, on the other hand, has an emotional sensitivity the shallow Anthony lacks. Each of them fulfills the other’s deficiency.

From a formal standpoint, Villeneuve’s biggest influences here are David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Roman Polanski. The film begins with a surreal sequence that feels like it could take place in Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive. Adam or Anthony (we don’t know which) arrives at a strange club where a naked woman in stilettos performs with a tarantula on stage. The spider imagery continues throughout the film. Like Lynch, Villeneuve makes the surreal and the banal exist side by side. For example, a nightmarish scene of a spider-headed woman comes after a mundane discussion about blueberries. Villeneuve has claimed in interviews that the film is decipherable, but nevertheless, Enemy makes no literal sense. It operates on dream logic.

Villeneuve channels Cronenberg with how the nightmarish scenario these characters find themselves in unleashes their suppressed sexual desires. Both doubles become fixated on the idea that they could sleep with the other’s partner without being caught. Like in Cronenberg's films, the characters begin to act on animalistic urges they've kept hidden.

Like Polanski, Villeneuve transforms the mundane apartment settings into confined, paranoid spaces. Much of the film is stuck in high-rise apartments, with Adam grading papers or Anthony arguing with his wife. The entire film is shot with yellow filters, as if the smog of the metropolis has clung to every person and place within it. Helicopter shots transition scenes. In these aerial views, the camera turns the abstractions of the buildings’ architecture into a constricting visual design, making the city a symbolic maze or spider’s web. A menacing sound design and score emphasize the film’s nightmarish quality.

I mention all these great directors when discussing Enemy because Villeneuve is bound to join their ranks. With Prisoners he turned standard mystery fare into a troubling look at justice and victimization. With Enemy he has made something more personal and elusive. The film’s thematic concerns with paranoia and male power fantasies are interesting, but it’s the way the film creates a toxic dream atmosphere through which to explore these themes that makes it so special. I often bemoan the fact that the prospects for Canadian film look dim nowadays. But if Canada produces more films like Enemy and more directors like Denis Villeneuve, our national cinema has hope.

9 out of 10

Enemy (2014, Canada/Spain)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Javier Gullon based on The Double by José Saramango; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini.