A creepy tale of two doppelgängers stuck in an aimless sort of suspense.
Denis Villeneuve has been keeping himself very busy. At the Toronto International Film Festival last year, it wasn’t enough that he had the tightly wound Prisoners making its world premiere, but he managed to have another film finished in time to double dip at TIFF. Though if you end up seeing Enemy (which only got its theatrical release this month) it will be easier to wrap your head around Villeneuve’s ability to pull that off. Smaller in scale, lighter on actors and directing a more local crew, Enemy has all the ingredients of an indie flick. It really feels more like an experimental visual monograph on delusion and paranoia than just your run of the mill film, which goes from point A to point B, ticking all the boxes in the screenwriting rulebook along the way. No, this is a film that crawls out of all boxes and weaves its way around a singular phenomenon with no interest in really going anywhere. And that’s okay.
The opening sequence of the film perfectly sets the tone for the kind of absurdity, confusion and intensity that’s prevalent throughout this picture. A bearded man (Jake Gyllenhaal) walks into an underground strip club where male eyes gaze at a dancing naked woman. A tray appears covered by a silver lid and the woman lifts the top to reveal the hors d’oeuvre: a hairy tarantula. The bearded man stares at the creepy crawler with acute intrigue, almost welcoming him. Out of this surreal scenario, we are brought into the reality of this man’s life. His name is Adam and he is a History professor at the University of Toronto. His life is a web of boredom: repeating the same things in his courses, riding the stuffy public transportation system, going back to his barren apartment and sleepwalking through his relationship with Mary (Melanie Laurent). Then, in one of the film’s lighter moments, a colleague asks Adam if he’s a movie guy and recommends that he watch a movie called “When There’s A Will, There’s A Way.” Adam finds the movie in a local video store and watches it one night, but when he has dreams of a particular sequence from the movie, he wakes up in the middle of the night and plays the sequence again. This time around, he notices a person in the scene who looks exactly like himself. After some digging, this turns out to be actor Anthony Saint Claire (Gyllenhaal) and it’s obsession at first sight.
Villeneuve manages to create something truly unique with Enemy because, as mentioned, no conventional rules guide this movie. Rather than progressing in a linear, plot-driven manner, the story slowly fades into the distance to make way for an aimless type of suspense, which keeps the viewer glued to Adam’s possessed idea of meeting Anthony. Gyllenhaal commands the screen, a key factor because he’s in practically every frame of the film. As the quirky, fidgety and mild-mannered professor Adam, Gyllenhaal creates the kind of sympathetic character pitiable from a distance but too strange to befriend. And while Adam looks like he couldn’t hurt a fly, Anthony is the confident and cocky B-movie actor who gives off the impression that he tortured loads of flies as a kid. When the two worlds collide, the suspense begins to reach boiling point and what looked like a thriller morphs into something much, much stranger.
Despite some of its more outlandish moments, and putting aside the stinging sensation of watching a film where virtually none of the characters feel fleshed out, Enemy‘s mood is what makes it worth seeing. Thanks to its experimental nature, by the time those (slightly demented) yellow closing credits roll, there’s an undeniable aftereffect of the experience. What sort of experience? An experience that Villeneuve inflicts on us through the language of cinema, and that was well transcribed from the film’s basis, Jose Saramaga’s novel The Double. Watching Enemy, the influence from a few masters is noticeable and very much welcomed: master of the macabre David Lynch, master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock and master of the bodily absurd David Cronenberg. The film’s frantic editing–the cuts often synchronized perfectly with the eerie score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (seriously, these guys need to be working way more than they are)–coupled with an oozing yellow color tone secreting from the feverish camera angles, all work together to build an atmosphere that is oddly satisfying in and of itself. Oh, and how could I forget all those wonderfully creative spider motifs? Arachnophobes take this as a warning, even with no spiders on-screen their presence is often felt, making for a decidedly creepy tingling sensation.
Enemy is worth your time if you’re the sort of movie-goer who doesn’t mind being forced into slight discomfort for a little mind prodding. But you’d have to be willing to forgive its disembodied approach to narrative and swap character development for visual development because you won’t get both. Ultimately, Villeneuve creates an absorbing experimental movie which manages to linger long after the credits roll despite the missed opportunity of digging deeper into the concept of doppelgängers. In many ways it’s a fitting companion piece to Prisoners, because above all else it proves that Villeneuve is becoming a natural for unsettling the mood and creepily crawling under your skin.