Denis Villeneuve Week – Day 4: “Enemy” (Canada / Spain 2013)
Another day, another crazy Denis Villeneuve film to review. This time it is his first true English-language film, Enemy (as previously mentioned, Polytechnique was filmed in both French and English). Enemy feels most similar to Villeneuve’s early feature Maelström in that it has some amazing peculiarities but overall deals with a very human problem. In this case, it is the duality of man and his struggle to choose between two very different alternatives – both in his life, and his mind.
The film opens on a peculiar and unnerving scene with an underground erotic show. A naked woman walks on stage as Jake Gyllenhaal’s character watches intently. She releases a tarantula from its box, and while on the verge of stepping on it with her high heel shoe, we see Gyllenhaal in ecstasy. We fade from the dark room and see a pregnant woman alone on her bed, and receive no other context for this bizarre opening sequence.
Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam Bell and Anthony Claire. Adam is a history professor in Toronto, often seen discussing the foundations of tyrannical government with his class. One day, upon recommendation from a colleague, Adam rents a movie called Where There’s a Will There’s a Way and is startled to see an actor in the film who appears to be his doppelganger. He learns more about this actor, who is the aforementioned Anthony Claire, and eventually seeks him out at his apartment – and even calls him on the phone.
Their paths wind together a few times, and neither Adam’s girlfriend Mary nor Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen seem capable of telling the two apart. There is one occasion where Helen travels to Adam’s school to see him teach, and is absolutely aghast. She talks with Adam briefly, and can’t understand why this person who looks just like her husband fails to recognize her. She calls her husband on the phone and he answers her, much to her confusion.
The interactions between Adam and Anthony reach a tipping point, as Anthony believes that Adam has tricked his wife into having sex, since they look identical. The only solution, in Anthony’s mind, is for them to trade clothes so that Anthony can pull the same trick on Adam’s girlfriend. She figures it out during the act, and is incredibly angered and weirded out, and the two start to fight about who he (Anthony pretending to be Adam) really is.
Ultimately, though, it matters little. Villeneuve’s film is more tone poem than discrete narrative. Are the two men distinct humans – or are they dual portions of a psyche struggling for dominance? It appears as though their respective partners think they are individuals, but Adam’s mother calls him Anthony at one point, suggesting the opposite. And the climax of the film marries the two men psychologically, if not physically. Could Enemy be saying that an internal struggle of the soul has the capacity to manifest as outward actions, hiding the true thoughts of the individual from everyone – including himself? Or perhaps he wishes to show how hidden desires (represented by the tarantula that pops up throughout the film) can erupt outwardly with disastrous consequences. Villeneuve is more concerned with showing us what those questions look like and how disturbing the hunt for answers can be than he is providing us easy answers.