Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Toronto history professor, appears to have settled into a routine of lecturing his students by day and making love to his girlfriend, Helen (Sarah Gadon), by night. In both cases, it has become mind-numbing and mechanical. There’s no passion, no excitement, no minute glimmers of personal satisfaction. When he walks from one point to another, dressed in a crumpled suit that pads his build unflatteringly, he looks genuinely pained, as if the bones in his legs were made of wood. On the advice of a fellow professor, he decides to rent a movie, something cheery and distracting. He watches it on his laptop at home, changing his routine with Helen, seemingly to no effect. But then he wakes up from a dream in which he appeared in the film he just watched. Startled, he pops the DVD back into his laptop, fast forwards to the scene from his dream, and lo and behold, an actor that looks exactly like him is playing a bellhop.
Why Adam failed to notice this actor the first time he watched the movie is anyone’s guess. Regardless, a little investigative work, coupled with a few deceptive maneuvers, enables him to track down the name of the D-list actor, Anthony St. Claire, and gather some of his personal information. Adam, uncertain how to process the idea of having a doppelganger, makes several nervous phone calls in an attempt to see Anthony in person. When a meeting finally does take place, we see that it’s true; Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal) is physically identical to Adam in every way, from his beard to the scar on his side. Anthony’s pregnant wife, Mary (Melanie Laurent), suspicious of the situation from the very start, sees Adam for the first time after following him to work. She is, to say the very least, overwhelmed, and upon returning home, she tearfully accuses Anthony of knowing what’s going on.
I’m making this sound like the setup of a science fiction potboiler about twins separated at birth, or cloning, or split personalities. But Enemy is a film that defies such mundane categorizations. Adapted from the novel The Double by Jose Saramago, it’s one of the most addictively puzzling psychological thrillers of recent memory, a film that provides no explanations yet gives us plenty to ponder. This was the wisest approach to the material, because given what we see, what gets said, how things happen, and who’s involved, no concrete explanation would suffice. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullon are more content to mercilessly tease us along with vague possibilities. We have the scars on Adam and Anthony’s bodies, already mentioned. We have Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini), who firmly asserts that Adam is her only son and she is his only mother, and he should give up this fantasy about a third-rate actor.
Villeneuve clearly has an affinity for mysteries populated by tormented characters. Consider his Oscar-nominated Incendies, in which fraternal twins must carry out the final wishes of their deceased mother – a woman who concealed her past out of fear and guilt. Also consider his previous film, the haunting Prisoners, in which a father’s extreme efforts to discover the whereabouts of his missing daughter lead to the revelations of deeper, darker town secrets. In the case of Enemy, the two lead characters, played by the same actor, each seem incapable of coping with the other’s existence, perhaps because they each feel as if their identity has been stolen, or perhaps because, for reasons known only to them, one seems to covet the other’s identity. In either case, assuming one or the other is correct, the plot is a rather searing metaphor for self-loathing. It probably would have been just as interesting had it been the exact opposite, if the metaphor had instead been narcissism.
There’s also a creepy yet intriguing undercurrent of taboo sexuality, most obviously depicted in dreamlike sequences of Anthony – and it has to be Anthony, because we see his wedding ring – attending a secluded, underground theater and watching as nude women perform fetishistic acts to an audience of appreciative men. There then comes the point at which Anthony, convinced Adam has had an affair with Mary, angrily orders that the two switch places without telling their respective significant others. Yes, Anthony will have access to Helen, but so too will Adam have access to Mary. There comes the moment when the two lay in bed, Adam having nervously undressed; Mary, who may be more intuitive than we think, reaches under the covers and touches Adam’s manhood for a moment, then places his hand on her swollen belly, as if lovingly telling him, “This new life I’m carrying is here because of you.” Knowing that the father is Anthony, not Adam, only makes the scene that much more unsettling.
One of the fetishistic acts involves a tarantula and a woman wearing absolutely nothing except spiked heels. Although we don’t actually see this, the presumption is that she uses one of her heels to squash the spider to death. The symbolism of this image is not entirely clear to me, and because it appears in the film two more times in the form of bizarre hallucinations, it only becomes murkier. A person can easily dominate something as small and weak a spider. Perhaps the spider represents one of the two men Gyllenhaal plays, and the story is about the stronger personality dominating the weaker. But who is the weaker of the two? One scene gives us a good idea, but then come the final two shots, which hint at something much different. That’s assuming I’m reading into the visuals correctly, which may not be the case. Movies like Enemy are intentionally designed to be open to interpretation. Certainly that makes them more challenging, but if you’re seriously into film, a challenge is something you should be willing to accept.
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