Adapted from Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago’s The Double, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013) employs the familiar narrative device of the doppelgänger to explore the duality of human nature. From Richard Ayodade’s recent Dostoevsky adaptation The Double (2013), to Cronenberg’s menacing tale of identical twin plastic surgeons Dead Ringers (1988), the alarming yet intriguing thought of seeing your own body reflected in the guise of another remains a fascinating conceit. However, in a world where social media allows us to construct an idealised image of ourselves, the concept of losing your individuality remains a genuine fear for many.
After Prisoners (2013), a murky examination of national culpability in relation to the use of torture, Villeneuve has once again teamed up with Jake Gyllenhaal for this corporeal study of the emotional repercussions of infidelity. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a reclusive History teacher whose sheltered existence is invigorated by the discovery of Anthony, a small-time actor who looks exactly like him. Gyllenhaal capably distinguishes the two roles by presenting each character as the polar opposite of the other, and what initially feels as though it might descend into an extended actor’s showreel comes to life once both incarnations inhabit the same space.
Their meeting culminates in an organic coming together of styles that showcases Gyllenhaal’s impressive range. Both Adam and Anthony have significant others (played by Sarah Gadon and Melanie Laurent), yet sadly neither are given enough room to manoeuvre, suffocated by the twofold presence of Gyllenhaal. Their roles as objects to be won and lost are a depressing consequence of this incredibly introspective and patriarchal narrative about masculine guilt. When the two Gyllenhaals do inevitably meet, the reaction between their polarising identities leads the film down a dark and disturbing path where partners are swapped and repressed resentment is allowed to flourish unhindered – all entwined within an oneiric frame narrative that recalls Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Symbolic imagery of giant spiders parading across the Toronto skyline only adds to the film’s enigmatic tone. These scenes help refract the tightly conjoined clichés of the doppelgänger narratives’ exploration of moral duality through a spectrum of Adam’s (or is it Anthony’s?) disordered subconscious – exploring the grey area that separates the two characters and allowing the film to focus on the human fascination with identity, belonging and the oppressive weight of guilt. This domineering ambiance is heightened by the film’s airless quality. Villeneuve’s nicotine-stained depiction of Toronto is drained of all vitality, and the thin barrier that separates cognitive and carnal acts is observed through Nicolas Bolduc’s voyeuristic lens. Whilst the mysterious premise and sensory illusions make for a relatively mesmeric experience, Villeneuve struggles to repress the same heavy-handedness that’s been present throughout his oeuvre.
Effectively a mood piece that plays on the ambiguity of its characters’ actions, Villeneuve muddies the waters by focusing more on texture than on the evocation of the primordial desire to separate one’s own image of themself from reality. Choosing to focus more time on the uncoordinated instinctual trends of the subconscious rather than the moralising role of the cognisant, Enemy lacks the humanity to relate to on an emotional level, ultimately tempering the brooding anxiety and distilling our intrigue into mild curiosity towards the oblique narrative rather than fostering the original menace into something more substantial. While Villeneuve has struggled in the past to coalesce the social with the personal, here reality attempts to exorcise itself from his lurid dreamscapes. However, Enemy remains an alluring study of guilt captured within a nightmarish landscape of remorse and culpability that crawls across your skin – leaving you pondering the meaning behind the subversive imagery embedded within Villeneuve’s seductive narrative for days and weeks to come.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble