Released in the aftermath of the success of his last film Prisoners, but actually made before it, Denis Villienieve’s Enemy comes along sharing the DNA of Jake Gyllenhaal. And DNA is not a bad place to start whilst looking at Enemy. Adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s 2002 novel ‘The Double’, but riffing off the Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, Enemy tells the story of Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) a college professor who seems to living a nice life on the surface in Toronto but who seems full of anger underneath. Watching a film recommended to him by a colleague, he spots an actor in a small role that is his mirror image. He begins searching for the man and eventually finds out the actor’s name, Anthony Clare (Gyllenhaal again). He watches the three other films Clare appears in and starts becoming obsessed with him, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). Eventually he tries to contact Anthony, first angering his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and then Anthony himself. And here is the DNA element; are they two of the same person? Twins? Are there two people at all? The stage is set for the two of them to meet. A dark twisty thriller about the duality of man seems inevitable.”
Except not quite. There is also some filmic DNA here, calling to mind one of Canada’s favourite sons, David Cronenberg. One can’t help but recall Dead Ringers here. Like Cronenberg Villienieve is after something a little different. As a film, Enemy seems uninterested in the familiar narrative beat for the most part. The two men meet up in the grimiest of hotels. They look at each other as if it is a mirror they are looking at. What they are really looking at is the abyss, but the abyss in this film is the unconscious mind. The distance between what people actually do in life and what they really want to do (but cannot) is the space this film occupies. The beauty of Enemy’s set up is that the classic conventions of this kind of film are pretty much ignored. On the surface, Bell is a relatively successful teacher and Claire is a fairly successful minor actor. The usual scenario would be to have the less confident one transform into the successful one and vice versa. But these two men seem deeply troubled on the inside even before they meet up. They both have beautiful partners. What they actually both want is something, indeed anything meaningful to cling to, and both are obsessed that the other has it. This is where Enemy gets its power from. The characters drive the narrative and not the script and plot points. Yet we do get elements of transformation here. The spider motif running throughout suggests Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ was on the mind of the director throughout. This is mixed in with the deep need to be loved and with a real sense of lust just underneath the surface. There are some serious psychosexual undercurrents at play most notably in the opening scene of the film. There is plenty in this film for future rewatches.
Gyllenhaal is superb throughout. It seems difficult to play two identical characters with very little to distinguish them, but he portrays both with tremendous subtlety. His body language, and his unconscious hungers and desires differentiate the characters and make them seem both alike and yet distinctly different in their own ways. This is probably his finest performance(s). The film is beautifully shot, in the grimiest of browns, seemingly discolouring everything. There is some gorgeous and indeed disturbing imagery on show here as well. Enemy is everything that Villeneuve’s Prisoners seemed like it was going to be but wasn’t. Enemy is economic, layered and very bleak. Unlike the bloated Prisoners, there is real depth
here, and it says a lot more about the human condition with an hour less of running time. See and then see again.