Enemy (2013)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in existential thriller about two men who might just be the same and that is as unconventional as it is spellbinding.

enemy-denis-villeneuveCanada
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter:
Javier Gullón
Director of Photography:
Nicolas Bolduc

Running time: 90 minutes

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, reads the epigraph to Enemy, another striking film by one of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve. It’s not clear what this means, exactly, and confusion reigns for much of the film, until the very end, when things start to come together and leave us… completely lost.

Based on The Double, a novel by one of the masters of magical realist writing, Portugal’s José Saramago (author of Baltasar and Blimunda, the most affecting love story I’ve ever read), the film is all about creating a suffocating atmosphere full of tension and mystery that is bewildering yet alluring, a kind of science-fiction film without the science fiction.

Set in an almost unrecognisable Toronto, permeated with an ominous yellow haze, the film opens with a voiceover by Isabella Rossellini, whose character has phoned her son to tell him, in a voice that sounds uncomfortably robotic, she is concerned about his living situation.

We soon get a glimpse of what she is talking about (his threadbare apartment), but not before we see a man walk down a shadowy corridor, filled with the same yellowish light that appears almost everywhere in the film, and join a group of people in a dark room where they look at a woman in high heels who may or may not step on a giant tarantula.

This incident, out of place as it appears to be, will be at the back of our minds by the time the final scene rolls around – one that fully qualifies as bathos, because it unexpectedly serves as the only source of laughter in a very serious film.

What this seriousness comprises is one man’s discovery he has an identical twin, even down to them having the same scars. The man is Adam Bell, and he is a college history teacher. Slightly awkward and childlike, and clearly suffering from a form of depression, he gets a recommendation from a colleague to watch a movie and discovers an actor in the background who is a spitting image of him.

This actor turns out to be Anthony St. Claire, who looks and sounds exactly like him, and even has a wife who closely resembles Adam’s own girlfriend. Adam doesn’t know what to do, even though his classes at the moment are about repetition in history, and we’ve already seen his own life mirror this aspect in other ways.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as both men in this, his second film for the director in less than a year after another serious turn in Prisoners, but although we follow the twists and turns of the plot, as far as possible, mostly from Adam’s point of view, his inaction or reticence to dig deeper and confront this inexplicable enigma is frustrating, although it could have been much worse in the hands of another director or another actor. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal maintain the tension throughout with very little dialogue and bucket loads of atmospheric lighting and music, as they reel us in to persuade us the story will reveal its answers in the end.

But anyone familiar with Saramago knows he isn’t big on answers. His style – long sentences and dialogue without quotation marks or attribution, constructed around a central theme or inciting incident – has always been the overriding factor in readers’ appreciation of his work, and his books have not had much success as big-screen adaptations.

Enemy, however, effectively conveys the feeling of the material, and although many viewers will likely be disappointed by the lack of a more explanatory dénouement, they should stay put and watch the end credits, in which a lateral tracking shot from one end of the city to the other makes it very clear this is no ordinary film. As beautiful yet unworldly as anything you can imagine, it may be the most inspired shot from a technical point of view since Andrei Tarkovsky pulled back from a solitary house at the end of Solaris.

Meaning in the film always seems to elude us, as we can almost never know the characters’ thoughts or explain their behaviour. We don’t know whether the colleague’s recommendation at the beginning was by design or by chance, it is tough to understand why a meeting is arranged in a lonely motel an hour outside the city, and moreover why Adam agrees to it, and a scene with him in an empty classroom, in front of an enormous diagram of “chaos” and “order” scrawled on the board, seems entirely out of place because it is so obviously relevant. Once again, we get just enough information to make us want more, but it is always too little for us to decipher the chaos and see the order behind it.

The film makes about as much sense as those of David Lynch, or some of Villeneuve’s fellow Canadian, David Cronenberg. Speaking of Cronenberg, Enemy has one of the most brutal and best-staged single-take car crash scenes you are ever likely to see, and it reminds us how skillfully the director sometimes uses his camera, as anyone who has seen his earlier works, like Next Floor, would confirm.

With more questions than answers, Enemy won’t be to everyone’s liking, but even though it sometimes feels like a version of Żuławski’s Possession, though thankfully without a hysterical Isabelle Adjani running around, the mysterious ambience is spellbinding, and our minds stay busy because we keep wondering what will happen next.

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