A scary and stylish psychological thriller.
First things first, arachnophobes should steer clear of this film at all costs. Even those with very mild arachnophobia will be profoundly unsettled by some of the imagery in this slippery, oblique psychological thriller, as I was, so it scarcely bears thinking of the reaction of serious spider-haters. However this arachnid aspect is merely the icing on the proverbial cake for a film that updates the doppelganger myth in a modern setting to create a scary and stylish psychological thriller.
The film follows a gloomy associate professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose unfulfilling life in Toronto changes when he watches a film titled Where There’s A Will There’s A Way after rebuffing his girlfriend’s (Mélanie Laurent) request for him to come to bed. He then notices that one of the extras in the film is his identical double. The story then follows Adam as he mounts an investigation into this coincidence and meets Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal), a more confident and aggressive man married to the pregnant Helen (Sarah Gadon). The film then evolves into a strange sort of one-upmanship game when the two actors do meet which eventually involves the two men’s respective sexual partners, and indeed after the disturbing discovery that they even share identical scars on their abdomen, their respective universes seem to unravel as if confirming an imbalance in the laws of nature. As the opening quotation suggests, “chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.” Meanwhile there are dream-like hints dropped of an underground sex cult and a giant spider towers over the Toronto skyline.
This art-house thriller is based on a Portuguese novel by José Saramago, called The Double (not to be confused with Richard Ayoade’s similarly themed film) the influence of a certain European storytelling tradition is apparent. The film’s use of allegory and surrealism contains definite shades of Kafka and Camus, and screenwriter Javier Gullón’s fellow Spaniards Salvador Dali and Federico García Lorca. The film’s dream-like tone and atmosphere fits in just as much with American film giants such as David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. The claustrophobic relationships and jaundiced presentation of sexuality bring to mind Roman Polanski’s work but perhaps most important is the influence of psychological horror guru, and native of Toronto, David Cronenberg, whose own film Dead Ringers, featured Jeremy Irons playing two physically identical but mentally opposite twins.
Enemy‘s French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s previous films, including Academy Award For Best Foreign Language Film winner Incendies (2010) and his mainstream Hollywood thriller Prisoners (2013) which also featured Jake Gyllenhaal, have often dealt with shifting identities and eruptions of repressed violence usually against women, both themes that reoccur here albeit in a more abstract fashion. The film’s oppressive atmosphere of dread is more free-floating and intangible than the threat in those more grounded films such as Prisoners, and thus Enemy feels like a purer distillation of Villeneuve’s art. These two films don’t have a great deal in common aside from the presence of Gyllenhaal, and indeed it would be a miracle if Enemy came close to matching that film’s financial success in the UK.
While Enemy may well be the small art-house component of the Villeneuve-Gyllenhaal double whammy, it is certainly not a film one can dismiss as self-indulgent, in spite of its murky narrative. The film is a model of suspense-based filmmaking that never leaves the viewer less than enthralled in the cause-and-effect of the characters’ actions even when it’s unclear of what the deeper meaning is. Gyllenhaal is unassumingly brilliant in both essaying the dazed and curiously empty Adam and the more bullish, sinister, but no less troubled, Anthony. Adam’s palpable excitement upon discovering his double, and thus his potential involvement in something unique, is touchingly portrayed and brings home how frail this man’s sense of self-worth is, in ways that words could not thanks to Gyllenhaal. The wonderfully expressive Sarah Gadon helps give depth to Helen, who suspects Anthony of infidelity and is utterly disturbed upon meeting his double at the university where Adam teaches. The film’s trickiness is not only alleviated by its brilliant lead actors but also by a combination of Matthew Hannam’s transfixing editing, the piercing score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans and the tremendous contribution of Nicolas Bolduc’s hazy cinematography which makes Toronto look drained and nightmarishly unreal.
Whether the film’s formidable atmosphere and imagery has much depth is a matter for debate but the film is certainly a tour-de-force at conveying existential dread and surrealistic horror through imagery and performance. On the internet some have read into it an allegory about fascism (Adam is teaching a module about this subject), while others have interpreted the films as a demonstrating the male fear of female intimacy. Both theories have strong evidence on their side, but the film most strongly seems to portray how entrapped urban life can feel and the horrors of feeling your fate hasn’t matched your ambitions, after all one of the doubles (if indeed they are two separate people) is a extra in the local Canadian film industry. The film’s final abrupt revelation is so unexpected and creepy, it almost feels like the punchline to an incredibly dark joke. The light-hearted music that plays over the credits appears to cement this feeling and I would have laughed if my throat hadn’t dried up around 30 minutes previously.
Enemy (2013), directed by Denis Villeneuve, is released in UK cinemas by Pathe Productions, certificate 15.