Directed by Denis Villeneuve
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini
Based on the novel entitled Double, by José Saramago
Ever since Psycho, Vertigo, Cybil, The Three Faces of Eve, Crash, A Beautiful Mind, Shutter Island, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan… movies with psychological content have fascinated audiences1.
This one leaves you as troubled as the main character seems to be, leaving you to wonder what’s happening. And that’s harrowing. But that’s the point.
In fact, the impression that lingers for days after you see the film, is whether or not the mirror image is real. Or if Jake Gyllenhaal‘s character is losing his mind.
Enemy, based on a book by José Saramago and adapted for film by Javier Gullón, gives us little to understand. But then again, maybe just enough. In an interview to francophone media this week, Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve said that if you came out of the film not understanding what had happened, that would be normal. Villeneuve won for Best Director at the Canadian Screen Awards in March.
Filmed on location in Toronto (a city relatively unknown to big box office productions), Denis Villeneuve wanted his character to search for himself in the intertwining highways and sprawling boroughs of a Canadian metropolis, where the city becomes another character in which to get lost.
There is something conscious and unconscious going on in this film. There are six main characters here but somewhere along the line you start to believe that there are maybe only four. How many men are there really? And how many mothers? The female partners of the male characters are the only “real” ones. They strongly resemble eachother, but they are different individuals. One is pregnant. That detail can have quite a bit of significance, if you think about it, later. That one, Helen, seems to understand perfectly what is going on. And she is at the same time terrified and in control.
After all, the movie really starts with all the information we need. Sex and spiders (a psychoanalyst’s dream), conflicting personality traits in two guys who are like identical twins, and two women who look very much alike but who hold very different roles. See here the perfect, loyal wife, and the sexual partner: One good, permanent, fertile, supportive, and loving, and the other one demanding, carnal, alluring, and dangerous. Is this the classic male fantasy unfolding, about the perfect woman being half virgin and half hooker? Half angel and half black widow spider? Is there a wife and a mistress here?
Let’s look at it from the psychoanalyst’s angle. One guy is a serious college professor, a straight-shooter, unassuming, responsible… say, the Ego in Freudian terms, the rational conscious mind. The other one is a narcissistic, hedonistic actor who thrives on high testosterone, visceral experiences, living on the razor’s edge… say the Id, the limitless, the always wanting, the unconscious. The history professor recites Hagel who said that all the world’s events happen twice, that this century is a mere repetition of the last one. The character seems to ask if we are condemned to our own duality. Gyllenhaal of course plays both.
But we might wonder instead if our guy is condemned to fight his own “self” over multiple women as the objects of conflicting desires, in a sort of psychological warfare between Ego and Id, whose end will only come with the destruction of one, or the other.
It’s all very eerie, and the searing musical crescendos, deep tonalities, and staccato plucking of violin strings put you in a Hichcock-esque kind of realm (the duo Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans also won a Canadian Screen Award for original music). This seems be a bit over the top at times but if the end — as in the final, gasp-producing scene — justifies the means, the result is an enigmatic work, an introspective and chilling psychological thriller with a human dimension that leaves you to piece things together on your own.
The malaise is however offset by beautiful photography — Adam’s home scenes are filtered in orange hues, and Anthony’s apartment and the outside world are dipped in cold blue and grey hues. The close-ups of pregnant Helen (Sarah Gadon) are amazingly tender and soft. Nicolas Bolduc well deserved the award for Best Photography (at the Canadian Screen Awards).
Ever since the cataclysmic Polytechnique (2009 in French) on the University of Montreal engineering school shooting that killed 14 women in 1989, and Incendies (2010 in French, English and Arabic) a gut-punch on the human collateral of war, Denis Villeneuve has made films about events that take the human spirit to its outer limits. However, whereas in Incendies Villeneuve did not push the expression of inner destruction externally enough, in this writer’s opinion, here again, if the narrative in Enemy revolves mostly around inner turmoil, it seems that he aims now at least to delve a bit deeper in the actor’s playground.
Having shown his might to Hollywood more recently with the acclaimed Prisoners (2013), Denis Villeneuve is now playing in the big leagues.