Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Javier Gullón based on the novel by José Saramago.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Adam + Anthony), Mélanie Laurent (Mary), Sarah Gadon (Helen), Isabella Rossellini (Mother).
Even before you see the Toronto skyline, or note the presence of Sarah Gadon, the current muse of several Canadian filmmakers, you can tell Enemy is a Canadian film. Why exactly, it’s hard to say – just that Enemy has the look and feel of a Canadian film – something the younger David Cronenberg (or perhaps Atom Egoyan) would make. In their hands, Toronto – a city I work in every day – turns into a dark, grey, depressing place, full of strange people who harbor dark secrets and often do not even understand themselves. I once heard a critic compare American and Canadian films thusly – “In an American film, on the surface everything seems to be strange, but underneath everything is normal. In a Canadian film, the surface seems normal, and everything underneath is strange”. That’s a good way of describing some of the best Canadian films – and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is one of the best in recent years.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam, a history professor, who lectures his students on dictatorships, and how everything goes repeats itself – which we see as he repeats the same lecture over and over again, heads out into the grey Toronto streets, comes home to grade papers, and then have sex with his girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent), who he otherwise basically ignores. Even before he sees his exact double as an extra in a movie, he is at least depressed, if not already cracking mentally. When he sees that double, he becomes obsessed with tracking him down. He finds out the agency that represents him, and heads to their office, where the security guard knows him as Anthony. He gets his address and phone number – in Mississauga, which is somehow in Villeneuve’s film even more grey and depressing than his Toronto (I feel the need to point out that despite what some American critics have said – Mississauga is not exactly a “ghetto” outside Toronto – it isn’t Scarborough for God’s sake). He phones the number he gets, and talks to Anthony’s wife Helen (Gadon) – who thinks her husband is calling and playing a cruel joke on him. Eventually Adam will get through to Anthony – the two will meet – and things become ever stranger.
Villeneuve is working from a script by Javier Gullon, based on a novel by Jose Saramago – but the film is more ambiguous than Saramago’s novel – it doesn’t spell things out as neatly as the book does, even if the structure of the movie is perhaps a tad too neat (the film is 90 minutes long, and twists itself twice – almost precisely at the half hour and hour marks). The two men are drawn to each other, intrigued and frightened by discovering that they have an exact double in the world – and yet each responds in different ways. For Adam, he recoils from their first encounter – he wants to put it out of his head as quickly as he wanted answers. But Anthony’s response is more sinister and cruel – not only to Adam, but also to his wife and to Adam’s girlfriend. We’ve already delved into Anthony’s disturbed psyche – complete with an even more screwed up sex club than seen in Stanley Kurbrick’s Eyes Wide Shit – by this point. Or perhaps that’s Adam’s psyche. Perhaps it’s both of theirs. The two men are similar in many ways, and their identities start to blur, especially when each takes the other’s place late in the film. The final shot of the movie is the most disturbing – far beyond the initial shock value it has that makes you jump, the implications of the shot become even more disturbing in retrospect – depending on how you interpret it, of course.
Villeneuve changes the ending of Saramago’s book, which was more explicit in setting things out, and that’s true for the rest of the novel as well. The biggest change is perhaps also the best – and that is to the character of Helen, Anthony’s wife, who in the novel doesn’t realize who she’s with at a crucial moment, but the movie suggests that she does in fact know – and more tellingly, doesn’t care. This makes her character more complex – and gives Gadon her best screen role to date (there is a reason why she won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress for this film last week). For Gyllenhaal, the movie provides another showcase for his talents – after career best work in Villeneuve’s last film, Prisoners (although this was shot before that one), he once again tops himself. His Adam and Anthony are very much the same and very much different – if that makes any sense (and it does to me, having seen the movie).
What Enemy ultimately means really is up to the viewer. I’ve already heard a few different interpretations, all of which have some merit based on what we see in the movie, but none of which I think can be definitively “proven” by what’s in it either. And I know some (if not many) will be off put by the film deliberate “artiness” and its refusal to spell everything out in a more typical fashion. Fair enough. But for me, Enemy was an endlessly fascinating movie – and one I cannot wait to revisit. Prisoners showed that Villeneuve has a career ahead of him in mainstream Hollywood thrillers if he wants one – it was one of the best of its type in recent years. Enemy shows that the director of Maelstrom, that was narrated by a fish, and Polytechnique, a rather daring take on the infamous mass shooting at Montreal’s Polytechnique in 1989, is not done experimenting yet. Here’s hoping he keeps doing both kinds of movies in the future.