Saturday, 23 May 2015

I see no reason whatsoever for us to fight.

The Duellists
(1977)

Ridley Scott’s debut, and you can be quite sure he wouldn’t even consider making something as restrained, measured and thoughtful as this today. Or even 20 years ago, come to that. The Duellists announces him as a very different filmmaker to the one he has become. Sure, there’s the ever-present painterly eye, but one would take from this a director in thrall to the artistic sensibility rather than the commercial trough he’s mostly fed from since. This is a picture I maybe didn’t appreciate as much as I should have on first encounter, informed as I was by the more instantaneous delights of Alien and Blade Runner. But The Duellists fully deserves to stand along side those two as evidence of what Scott could do when he was still exploring his potential and hadn’t become frightened by his failures.


Comparison has been made with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, not least by Scott himself (understandably, he was in awe of the film’s cinematography). Really, though, they don’t share all that much besides visual aplomb and a general sense of period (Lyndon ends 11 years before The Duellists begins). Sure, there are themes of honour and dishonour, running through both, but The Duellists (which isn’t to slight it at all) feels like a well-worn joke; one that has got more embellished with each telling while being fairly slight in essence. In contrast, Lyndon really fulfils its expansive remit of the rise and fall of Barry. Kubrick’s film is mockingly narrated as a twisted black comedy. Where it falls short is with a lead actor who is such a blank presence that, while Ryan O’Neal could be argued to both serve and reduce the tale’s impact, it’s difficult not to conclude his presence is an entirely commercial necessity rather than a particular asset.


Dr Jacquin: He fought a duel this morning.
Armand d’Hubert: Yes, He also fought a duel this afternoon.

The Duellists’ joke is ingrained in the premise. Two Hussars repeatedly duel each other over several decades, but neither quite knows why. That’s enough, but one can’t help but think someone other than Scott might have also mined the material (Joseph Conrad’s novella, adapted by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes) for its humorous potential. There’s the occasional amusing exchange (above), but Scott’s picture is a very sombre one.


It’s also very well cast. Filling out the support are great British actors like Robert Stephens, John McEnery, Tom Conti, and Albert Finney. However, leading duties are reserved for two American actors, Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. The narration would be provided by a third, Stacey Keach (much more perfunctory and less florid than Michael Horden’s in Lyndon). It’s a break with expectations (of English playing period, and period of any given nationality), and was effectively decreed by Paramount, but it works as a means of focusing our attentions on these two men apart. One has to wonder at the studio, however; what must they have been taking to seriously think these two leads might put bums on seats?


For Keitel, as Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud, this marked a period where he would make all sorts of pictures as if on a whim, ones that would frequently not pay off. Perhaps it was a consequence of being discarded from another adaptation of Conrad immediately prior, Apocalypse Now. He’s a glowering, vituperative ball of aggression throughout, perfectly cast on that level. We don’t need to interrogate further just why he takes such a dislike to Carradine’s Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert. He’s the kind of abrasive type who would pick a fight with anyone at the drop of a hat. He lives to be offended, and to nurture his seething contempt. Scott and Vaughan-Hughes presumably agree that little extra is required, as they concentrate on d’Hubert.


Carradine, never quite as prominent as his brother David, although he’s made more of an impact on TV in the past decade, initially displays a certain bemusement at Feraud’s unchecked aggression. Feraud is, after all, incredibly silly. But the realisation that these bouts aren’t going to stop any time soon, and continued brushes with mortal peril, encourage a diffidence only tempered by the code of honour requiring Armand, no matter what, to meet his adversary’s challenge. All else falls in line before this, including love and family. Carradine’s performance has a fragility to it, particularly set against Keitel’s blunt force, and works for a character who is nominally the hero, but only nominally.


As far as we can tell, Feraud’s beef is that d’Hubert was unlucky enough to be the one ordered to place him under house arrest for (of course) fighting a duel. He may also have perceived other slights; d’Hubert arrested him at the house of a significant local lady, and he doesn’t respond quickly enough to the suggestion that he’d allow an insult to the Emperor to go undefended. D’Hubert’s reactions (“I see no reason whatsoever for us to fight”; “This is too ridiculous”) become no more comprehending as time goes by; he just becomes more resigned to the inevitable, seemingly fated to these periodic encounters. He tells Dr Jaquin (Conti) “All in all, I’m far from certain myself” regarding the reasons for the affront. Jaquin suggests, “Keep away from him, keep ahead of him, put your trust in Bonaparte”.


Scott makes no bones about the duels being unpleasant ordeals. Injuries frequently occur, but Feraud is only preoccupied with continuing this aggression (“Next time, d’Hubert” he bellows when his opponent has to demur after being stabbed). On their third duel both are so exhausted they can hardly stand, until their seconds eventually intervene. Reason, even from Feraud’s own associates, comes to nothing; no one can assuage his belligerence.


And throughout, there is this curious sense of honour. “Sir, I cannot fight a man three times and then tell tales on him” d’Hubert informs Brigadier-General Treillard (Stephens). So the years pass, the military fashions change, and the mode of engagement shifts too (in 1806 they duel on horseback, just to mix things up a little). Another six years go by, and they reencounter each other during the retreat from Moscow. Despite teaming up to fight off Cossacks (d’Hubert, to no avail, perhaps thought he could break the ice amid the snow and ice), Feraud’s parting shot is “Pistols next time”.


It isn’t until the political landscape changes and so do, nominally, allegiances, that Feraud can actually claim some substance to his campaign. Napoleon is exiled. D’Hubert marries into the aristocracy, and then joins the king’s army after Waterloo. Feraud, who has declared d’Hubert a traitor, is detained for his loyalty to Napoleon. Unbeknownst to Feraud, d’Hubert gets him paroled (that honour again), which leads to the inevitable final meeting. With pistols. D’Hubert has the drop on Feraud, and instructs him “I have submitted to your notions of honour for long enough. You will now submit to mine”. Which entails d’Hubert now owning Feraud’s life. Feraud broodingly capitulates to the instruction that he will depart and conduct himself “as a dead man”.


Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel was based on an actual account, as Keach informs us during the opening. The bare facts are remarkably faithful; Fournier took offence at Dupont’s message and challenged him, leading to (at minimum), 30 duels over the next 19 years (in that sense, Scott actually reins in the hyperbole) that were only curtailed after Dupont bested Fournier in a pistol match.


Despite the casting of very modern actors, Scott maintains a strong sense of period and manner. He touches on readily recognisable ideas, such as how they become minor celebrities through their constant sparring. There are also fanciful explanations for just why they are at each other’s throats (“He suggested you’d both been enemies in a previous life”). That’s no less plausible than the idea that The Duellists is a commentary on the pointlessness of war (why was it necessary for them to fight again?); it may be in there, but Scott has never been much good at developing subtexts, so it’s best to pick and choose it as you will.


This is a good film for cameos too. Besides those mentioned, Tom Howard from Howard’s Way (Maurice Colbourne) seconds Feraud during one passage. Norma from The Royle Family (Liz Smith) gives a tarot reading, and Pete Postlethwaite obliges Robert Stephens with a shave.


The picture marked the beginning of David Putnam’s prestige period as producer (one that ended abruptly and decisively with the hubris of accepting the position of studio head at Columbia), having previously dabbled in musical tinged fare with mad Ken Russell, David Essex and Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone). For about 10 years he would maintain generally strong form, although this was the first and last time he worked with Scott (the same for composer Howard Blake and cinematographer Frank Tidy).


As a Ridley Scott film, The Duellists is a curiosity. It’s as non-representative of what would follow as The Hunger was for his brother Tony’s first feature. What it does have in common with the three films that would follow, however, is a director allowing world building content to significant degree. His early work allows the viewer to get lost in the conjured celluloid. After a certain point, that is no longer the case. Scott now has his eye on the economy of the edit and favours the monotony of an image that no longer surprises, it merely repeats.


If you ask what attracted him to The Duellists, it was partly that it was public domain (he had wanted direct a movie, but needed to get there with limited resources), and then the Kubrick factor. Such lack of passion doesn’t adversely affect the film itself, however. None of his later historicals, not (the flawed but fascinating) 1492, not the acclaimed Gladiator, the leaden Kingdom of Heaven, pointless Robin Hood or bafflingly conceived Exodus: Gods and Kings, measure up to his first period piece. Scott was a much better director when he was exploring the possibilities of the motion picture.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Smells like balls.

Birdman
Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
(2014)

(SPOILERS) A backlash began against Birdman (or The unexpected addition of the bracketed bit) even before it was Oscar nominated. That it gained a late stage upper hand in the awards buzz circuit (increasingly, it appears that’s the way the season operates) and managed to seize the Best Picture statuette only seemed to confirm in the eyes of some that it was extremely overrated, a film that could only explore its themes through explaining them in bold type again and again every couple of minutes. Such criticism is, in part, deserved. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is no model of restraint, as the attention-seeking “one shot” conceit of the movie evidences. But it’s frequently very funny and, if its swipes at the world of artistic endeavour are familiar, it is lead by a pitch-perfect cast operating at full capacity. Birdman may not have deserved the Best Picture Oscar, but Michael Keaton definitely deserved Best Actor.


The egotistical funk of the artist struggling for validation is nothing new as a plot device. It’s remarkably (depressingly?) common for the creative type to write what they know (hence the number of Stephen King or Woody Allen tales about a writer). It’s a vocation keyed to be reliant on the response of the audience. Popularity is everything, until it isn’t. Then comes in appropriate veneration; the cultural mechanics of high art and low art. Quality and trash. To an extent, Birdman presents a role-reversal of the Coen brothers’ classic Barton Fink. There, the pretentious, self-absorbed Fink is a playwright who departs for Hollywood; throughout, the Coens walk a line of excoriating the character who looks down on and diminishes the low art to which he has reduced himself as a wage slave. Barton is wholly aesthetically removed from the masses, essentially serving a crowd who (as Emma Roberts daughter notes in Birdman) devour his intellectual snobbery but represent the furthest ivory tower from making a difference.


Keaton’s Riggan Thomson has made a career from lowbrow action movies and romantic comedies, most famously the Birdman superhero franchise some 20 years earlier. He has sunk his money into a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, an act of hubris born from a desire to prove himself the actor (and adaptor and director) he would like to be seen as, and see himself as. Like Barton, he testifies, “I’m trying to do something that is important” to anyone who will listen.


But the only one really listening, and reproving him, is the Birdman in his mind, who “tells me the truth”. Riggan imagines (or does he?) himself floating in a yogi position and moving objects with the power of his mind, even “causing” a lighting rig to knock an actor he loathes out of the play. Not only is Riggan an over-the-hill movie star, clawing at a doomed bid for respectability, his satellite world is filled with loved ones to whom he pays little attention or heed. The daughter Sam (Emma Roberts), out of rehab and acting as his assistant, the girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) possibly pregnant (when she comforts him on the play’s prospects with “It won’t be the first time I’ve been humiliated”, he absently remarks “Of course it won’t”; it’s all about him) and the ex-wife unglamoured by the showbiz world and the delusions it breeds.


It’s perhaps not so surprising that Iñárritu’s disparaging remarks about the superhero genre have been seized upon both by those disavowing the picture and those embracing it. For one group, it characterises Iñárritu as exactly the kind of lofty prig embodied by Edward Norton’s theatrical darling Mike Shiner, or betraying the vitriolic contempt exercised by theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan).


For the other, it underlines why Birdman is to be embraced, a film that satirises the mores of Hollywood and its bottom-line feeding artistic desolation. Iñárritu has a point when he characterises superhero movies as “very right wing”, but he may as well level to waste any other given genre (the cop movie, or any given thriller, for example) and ignore that each individual entry is capable of nuance or distinction.


As a director feeding on the very “substance” that Keaton’s character craves, it’s a little disingenuous, particularly when the basis of the film’s shooting style comes from something as creakily “student-speak” as the realisation that “we live our lives with no editing”. Apart from anything else, that just isn’t true, but more than that, it walks a line where it would be very dangerous to nurse the conceit unselfconsciously. It is, essentially, a gimmick, however it is dressed up, and as flashy a device as a multi-million dollar special effects set piece.


The tirades against empty Hollywood blockbusters appear ungenerous but mostly the problem is our auteur du jour is unable to make good on his antidote to all this palatable and empty fascism. Iñárritu is setting himself as a purveyor of the deep and meaningful, given a pass because he is an artist and definitely not the critic who trashes the trash. Yet there is a sense there is an unintentionally perverse aspect to this. Iñárritu’s makes “deep” movies only through having characters bang on about how deep they are (or aren’t). They take in water like an existentially holed ship. One might say it’s a shallow depth, like drowning in a puddle.


But. Despite his comments, and those of his characters (“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend” advises Mike; “Okay, I don’t even know what that means” replies Riggan), the picture is far more even-minded in its targets than it might first appear. There is little doubt that everyone, barring Riggan’s wife and daughter who are removed from or on the periphery of the entertainment industry, is adversely effected by it. It is innately wearing and tearing on self-respect and worth, because it relies so fundamentally on endorsement by others. And so it invites hierarchies within. As soon as the idea of art as something to be venerated is bandied about, those doing so are revealed to be delusional and onanistic.


Tabitha tells Riggan “I’m going to destroy your play. I hate you and everyone you represent” accusing them of being “entitled, selfish, spoilt children”. She sees his weak points and goes in for the kill (“You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity”). In turn, Mike despises Tabitha, and only vocally supports Riggan as a refraction of his contempt for her. The artist taking payback at the critic is much seen (from Lady in the Water to Chef). Mike quotes her “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist in the same way a man becomes and informer when he cannot be a soldier”.


The arbitrary manner in which Tabitha is only interested in the politics of her position as hit maker or breaker, and has no honour about the thing of the play is wholly cynical, seen through the extreme lens of the artist who has been burned one time to many. This is underlined by the final volte-face review, where the play receives a ringing endorsement under the picture’s alt-title “Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. Which is very much a backhanded compliment, if it’s even that, authenticated by waffle about “super-realism”. Tabitha is presumably calculated enough to recognise the cachet in affirming her own brand through the creation of a new theatrical style. More than that, Riggan was making no more of an artistic statement than Howard Beale in Network. It was interpreted that way (“unexpected”). He’s no method actor, but the performance is now cooked up as a pretentious soufflé (in much the same way as the Game On episode, where Ben Chaplin joins a band, has a panic attack on stage, and then gets acclaim for creating a whole new genre).


Mike: I pretend just about every place else but not out there.

Norton’s luvvie isn’t in the right either. He’s a complete prick. Norton’s casting is as sly as Keaton’s, given the latter’s history as masked vigilante and the former’s rep for being difficult, but also for being unquestionably a great actor. With this and his association with Wes Anderson, it’s good to see Norton regaining a foothold in quality offbeat roles, and Mike Shiner is wonderful creation. A performer who only comes alive on the stage, it’s perhaps a mistake to give him as much self awareness as he actually has, but there’s some lovely broad swings at method acting (“I think he’s drinking real gin”) and prima donna-ish behaviour coming from someone who knows they are the best at what they do and so has no problem with pissing people off (“Don’t you ever worry that I’ll give you a bad review?”; “I’m sure you will if I ever give a bad performance”).


Whether it’s standing buck naked for a fitting, suggesting to Lesley (Naomi Watts) “Let’s really fuck” during a bedroom scene, or wrestling Keaton in his underpants, Mike is a mirthful nightmare of overweening arrogance. As I said, I’m not sure the humanising side (his relationship with Sam) wholly works, although it does serve to illustrate that even someone as much of an arse as he is still manages to connect and show greater honesty than Riggan,


I’ve mentioned Barton Fink, to emphasise Birdman’s failings, but it reminds me of a Coen brothers film in as much as it’s wonderfully cast. As such, it’s a breeze to watch even when its ideas are sitting in plain sight. Stone, whose eyes get larger and larger with every role, is on much firmer ground than in her last Woody Allen effort; her naturalism ensures a role that is clichéd and obvious is invested with meaning and all but flies.


Riseborough and Watts, and Amy Ryan as Sylvia (Riggan’s ex-) are evidence of how well the actors responded to the screenplay, since these are very much supporting turns that live or die on what the actors bring to them. Zach Galifianikis is relatively subdued, and the better for it.


But this is Keaton’s show, and he’s amazing. He hasn’t had a part on which he can go to town like this since the back-to-backs of Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober. From his first caustic lines as his alter-ego Birdman (“How did we end up here? Smells like balls”) it’s clear this will be a performance to savour. Giving the disability Oscar to Redmayne is a shame because it reaffirms that a good comedic performance is always going to be seen as second fiddle.


Keaton’s still got that mad sparkle in his eyes and wired energy going on (Warner might have missed a trick not bringing him back as an aging Batman, actually), and he has the vanity of Riggan down pat, whether it’s his doubts changed in moments when Jake tells him the show is sold out or his underpant stroll through Times Square. The latter is delightfully ungainly, mainly due to the grimacing determination with which Riggan has to get back to the theatre (and the absurdity of people nevertheless coming up to him and asking for his autograph).


Iñárritu’s dialogue (with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinaelaris and Armando Bo) is often lumpen amid the caustic gems though, and it’s down to Keaton that it carries. Birdman may be his scolding voice, but “Because without me, all that’s left is you, a sad selfish mediocre actor grasping at the last vestiges of his career” leaves nothing to the imagination. His ex tells him “You confuse love for admiration” as if we were unable to work that out for ourselves. So, while lines like the Iron Man bashing (“That clown doesn’t have half your talent, and he’s making a fortune from that tin man get-up”) are funny, and his ex-wife’s review of a movie has the ring of truth (“Just because I did not like that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn did not mean that I did not love you”), the picture does at times feel overworked. 


Birdman’s dissection of why Riggan’s mediocrity is to be celebrated (they love action, “not this talky depressing philosophical bullshit”) is polarised into one or the other; Iñárritu takes the equal and opposite position to Tabitha. It leaves the picture in a place of acceptance it seems, but perhaps not consciously. Looked at another way, it is merely a counterbalance. No more truth has been revealed by the “authentic” world of the theatre (or the auteur filmmaker) than in the special effects centric movies. It’s all inevitably infected by deception or self-deception.


So where does that leave the final shot? Riggan awakes, post-shooting, with a new nose (a beak?) and Birdman still about (sitting on the toilet). The newly celebrated thesp climbs onto the window ledge and, when Sam enters, he has gone. She looks out and up and smiles, which is to suggest Birdman has flown. Riggan has accepted his own mediocrity and so become a whole? It would be difficult to interpret this as his feeling validated by the reviews because then Birdman might have absented himself all together.


Until this point, though, the assumption has been that the super-goings on are all in Riggan’s head; the levitating, the telekinesis, flying, and the scene where the street turns into a Birdman movie appears as the ultimate confirmation of this. We can take the last shot as a very meta- confounding of the rules of the picture, of course, or as a retrospective endorsement of it being magical realist. But it doesn’t really make a lot of sense on its own terms. Even one of the writers said, “I’m still trying to work it out”. I quite like it, but more because its one of the few points in an otherwise thematically overbearing picture that is left open to interpretation (one of the few other moments that Iñárritu doesn’t overtly comment on is that Riggan’s suicide bid is profoundly selfish, leaving all alomne a mentally fragile daughter who really needs a father). Maybe it’s aimed at pseudy critics who love to read their own meanings into the work of their favourite genius. Maybe that would be giving Iñárritu far too much credit.


Inarritu has made a fun film, and a superficially clever one, but I’m dubious it has hidden depths even given the abstruse final scene. This, like Robert Altman’s The Player, is the kind of picture awards ceremonies lap up, because it shines a critical light on the industry while allowing those who are “above” its targets (anyone who needs to think they are, basically) to feel superior. The exaggerated accolades have unfortunately detracted from what is witty movie, superbly performed by all. I don’t think the one-shot conceit was worth all the vexation it caused the makers; honestly, the drum solo score does more to create a sense of mental uncertainty than the restless camera.


Birdman look as if it will be one of those pictures where Oscar glory taints it retrospectively, since it already appears to have been raised beyond its true value. It doesn’t help that the Iñárritu’s conceit suffers from the same over-inflation it directs at its characters; like that Hamlet speech, it may just be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.








Wednesday, 20 May 2015

He has the same voice. He looks exactly like you.

Enemy
(2013)

(SPOILERS) If Enemy is anything to go by, Denis Villeneuve is an ideal choice to direct Blade Runner 2 in the place of Ridley Scott. Not because he has the auterish visual sense of Scott at his zenith, because he has an equally incontinent grasp of narrative. The excuse of Enemy, which its defenders would likely summon, is that, as an exploration of its protagonist(s)’s subconscious, a formally coherent plot can be thrown out the window. Unfortunately, that leaves the film open to anything and everything and leaves the viewer with a shrug of “Well, I guess it really doesn’t matter”. Enemy does have a lot going for it, including a superb dual performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, but it’s found wanting due a subtext that denies a coherent interpretation of events.


Villeneuve’s really quite lousy Prisoners came out the same year as Enemy, also starring Gyllenhaal (he has drug cartel thriller Sicaro coming out next, which has received raves at Cannes; then, Prisoners had pretty good notices too).  In comparison, Enemy is a masterpiece, but it falls considerably short of masters of the psychonautry such as David Lynch and Shane Carruth.


Javier Gullón adapted José Saramago’s novel The Double and, like Richard Ayode’s adaptation Dostoevsky’s doppelganger tale of the same name, it explores the relationship between two identical individuals. The Double fell short because it was rigidly familiar, rather than anything inherently flawed in the filmmaking. Enemy, for much of the time, keeps the viewer guessing in a way Ayode’s film doesn’t. That it fails to satisfy is partly down the limitations of potential interpretations, and partly down to its inability to satisfy even within those constraints. This isn’t a Lynch picture where the fractured personalities reflect a fractured world, where the occult is invested in every veiled corner and informs any (partial) understanding. Enemy has a few such elements, but discards them in favour of something altogether restricted.


Gyllenhaal is Adam and Anthony. Adam is a  serious-minded college history professor who lives with his girlfriend (Mary, Melanie Laurent). When he sees a movie in which he bears a startling resemblance to a bit player, he is unnerved and decides to investigate. He discovers Anthony, a struggling actor with a pregnant wife (Helen, Cronenberg regular Sarah Gadon), leading to abundant mental and emotional turmoil for both of them and their other halves.


90% of the discussion of Enemy relates to just what it all means, and most people tend to agree that Adam and Anthony are the same person, This in itself is pretty much rote for double movies; they reflect two sides of the same personality. Whether it’s the alpha-male creation of the stepped-upon man (The Double, to an extent Fight Club) or the desired other life of the man imprisoned in a relationship (Enemy), the creation fulfils a yearning of some description. It would be more impressive to fashion a movie where this didn’t happen, and probably absolutely crucial these days to craft one where it at least works on different levels at once. This is why Fight Club works so well; it isn’t all about the reveal, that’s just icing on the cake.


Enemy tantalises with possibilities. The exotic, exclusive and forbidden sex club visited by Anthony, the first thing we see, and the key to which is the next to last thing we see Adam see, suggests a surface level world with a twisted back door, Eyes Wide Shut style; there’s another layer of reality that may co-exist with our own. Has Anthony stumbled upon something dangerous? His conversation with the lift clerk is pregnant with such strangeness. Then there are the spiders, one crushed under the heel of a nude dancer during the first scene and then implicated in his life throughout the rest of the picture. One hangs menacingly over the skyline. Women with spider heads haunt his dreams (very on-the-nose). Another, giant spider, greets Adam in the bedroom in the last scene. Until that point, the picture is relatively impartial with regard to interpretations. Unfortunately that last shot, as unexpected as it is, leaves no room for doubt (unless one pursues the invading aliens reading).


Added to that, there is Adam’s lecture (and Anthony’s also? We hear it twice, the first time with confidence and the second much less so). He discusses strategies of dictatorship, Marx and Hiegel (the former commenting that succumbing to such influences the first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce). This imbues the picture, awash with foreboding, with a sense that reality is not what it seems. The bread and circuses of societal control is mentioned, and the co-worker who “persuades” Adam to rent the movie Anthony’s starring in could, in another reading, being someone directing Adam through the looking glass, into the underbelly of perceived existence. That, with the spiders, suggests a They Live! style paradigm shift. It isn’t that the picture needs to become a science fiction fable to succeed; rather the level it reduces to feels rather mundane and rote in comparison.


The control becomes that of a wife of her husband. The spider under heel represents Anthony’s desire to rid himself of the ball-and-chain burden of responsibility, replacing it with the abandonment of unfettered sex. The spider hanging over the city? Well, it’s the all-seeing control of the feminine (possibly his domineering mother, former Lynch wife Isabella Rossellini). And the punctuation point, clearing it all up, finds Adam, once more succumbing to the influences that created Anthony (the key to free sex) entering the room of their marital bed and resignedly acknowledging the presence of his giant spider wife (cue another cycle of cheating, jealousy, and double living).


While that’s all well and good as a consistent layer of Adam/Anthony’s psychodrama and existential angst, one gets the impression Villeneuve and Gullon decided that the theme was all. Consequently, bashing out something that made sense on multiple levels became too much hard work. It’s quite evident from their scenes “together” that Adam and Anthony conceive of themselves as different and distinct people. And it’s not such a stretch to see Helen’s first encounter with Adam as eliciting such profound shock because of the way he, the Anthony she knows, is doing such a consistent job of pretending to/being someone else.


So how, then, are we to interpret the phone call, moments after Adam disappears from sight (it’s that old one! No one sees them in the same room together, audience aside)? Helen calls Anthony, who answers immediately. Does Adam have two phones he switches between? More to the point, does he have two personas he switches between instinctively when he hears his wife on the other end of the line? Well, clearly not since he was just talking to her. If Villeneuve and Gullón were aware of the issue, they presumably decided it didn’t need to make sense as it was Adam’s subconscious. Which, when it breaks down, suggests a lack of respect for their chosen narrative form.


The picture stands very little analysis if we choose to buy into there being two distinct individuals. Chiefly because the sense of the uncanny, and being mortified by someone who looks like oneself, is overplayed to the point of surrealism. The disturbance and paranoia is whacked out of proportion, both on the parts of Adam and Anthony, and Claire too. As for Mary, well it’s probably reasonable to conclude she is a figment of Adam’s imagination (which is a little reductive towards Laurent’s fine performance, struck off as make-believe). Although, some theories have posited the car crash occurred in the past, and gave him his scar. While this would fit with the security guard at the talent agency not having seen him in six months, it would appear to be dismissed by the radio Adam hears that morning; he’s processing the external information to bring his own split to an end, temporarily at least.


Like Helen (“Did you have a good day at school?” she asks Adam posing as Anthony at one point; earlier she pointedly comments “I think you know” when he asks what’s happening), Adam’s mother knows they are one and the same. The difference is, she has known about it for some time; she knows he has two apartments, has affairs, that one of him likes blueberries, one nurses failed hopes of being an actor, such that on top of his problems “The last thing you need is to be meeting strange men in hotel rooms”.


Ultimately, Enemy leaves a feeling of disappointment. It isn’t all it might have been. It’s blessed with a trio of fine performances, and Gyllenhaal delivers fine distinctions between confident Anthony and awkward Adam such that you’re never in doubt who is who but neither does he ever overdo it. That the film is so opaque for much of its running time enables it to be a diverting, intriguing experience, and Villeneuve can certainly imbue foreboding in every frame (this was also one of the few positives of Prisoners). But such flourish is really just sleight of hand, signifying little. The trick is one we’ve all seen before.  Adam/Anthony’s crisis of identity is minor league stuff. The only way to pull this off would have been to obscure the intent and connections (to make it even blurrier) or to concertina the possible interpretations.