(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.