Enemy (2013)

Canada, Spain / 91 minutes / color / Pathé, Entertainment One, Telefilm Canada, Instituto de la Cinematografia y de las Artes Audiovisuales, Corus, Televisión Española, Ontario Media Development Corporation, Société de Développement des Enterprises Culturelles Québec, Rhombus, Roxbury, micro_scope, Mecanísmo, Alfa Dir: Denis Villeneuve Pr: Miguel A. Faura, Niv Fichman Scr: Javier Gullón Story: O Homem Duplicado (2002; vt The Double) by José Saramago Cine: Nicolas Bolduc Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini.

A highly enigmatic piece from a director whose noirish credentials are excellent, including offerings like Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), all of which are likely to be covered here at some point. The enigma in Enemy focuses in part on the role of spiders in the movie’s subtext—apparently the cast and crew had to sign non-disclosure clauses on this matter—but primarily on what’s genuinely happening. Is the story actually one of a man finding his doppelgänger—or, really, his complementary self—or are we witnessing a protracted musing as a rather unpleasant man witnesses the pornographic death of a spider?

That last is the culmination of the movie’s opening sequence, set in some kind of exclusive live-pornography club, where seemingly well heeled men watch acts of sex and sadism. In one of these, an enormous spider is revealed, only to be crushed under the heel of a togaed woman. Witnessing the act is an as yet unidentified man, whom we’ll know with hindsight to be Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal).

Sarah Gadon as Helen.

Cut now to the humdrum existence of meek-mannered history teacher Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal again). Each day he teaches the same class to seemingly the same students, then rides home on the same bus to have the same bonk with steady girlfriend Mary (Laurent). But a chance watching of a DVD reveals to him he has a physical double in the form of a bit-part actor, Daniel Saint Claire. After watching the DVD he attempts atypically aggressive sex with Mary, something she’s clearly very unhappy with. For the next good part of the movie it appears she has thrown him over.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Anthony.

Adam tracks down Daniel Saint Claire, discovering his real name is Anthony Claire. Anthony’s a singularly more assertive, narcissistic version of Adam, but physically identical—the pair later learn—right down to the scar they both have on their torso. Anthony’s wife, Helen (Gadon), is six months pregnant; either he has a history of cheating on her or she believes he has—perhaps it’s just his inexplicable absences as he visits the sex club.

Up until now we’ve been thinking of Adam, however earnest, diffident and well meaning he might be, as the objectionable one: he’s clearly a nicer guy than Anthony, but what he’s been doing is akin to stalking. Then things turn around, though, and Anthony becomes the stalker—of Mary. At last he puts a proposition to Adam: let him take Mary away for a wild night of passion and in return Anthony will get out of Adam’s life for good.

What could possibly go wrong?

Mélanie Laurent as Mary.

Unlike his sister Maggie, Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t a favorite actor here at Noirish Towers, but having now seen him in Enemy I’ve been forced to eat crow and reassess my opinion of his abilities. If you met them in the street you’d have no difficulty telling the two men apart, Adam and Anthony, and yet the differentiation’s all done with demeanor, posture and vocal inflection (with the help, obviously, of the dialogue). Gyllenhaal was reportedly third choice after Javier Bardem and Christian Bale, but I honestly find it hard to imagine either could have handled the dual role better. Third choice Gyllenhaal may have been, but the end product is a quite superb piece of casting.

The other brilliant piece of casting is of Sarah Gadon as Anthony’s long-suffering wife; the role brought her one of the movie’s seven Canadian Screen Awards, plus a couple of other award nominations. Gadon has a most unusual and very lovely face; here the strangeness of her features is subtly emphasized, with the net result that we have an unsettling dichotomy—a sort of clash of affect—between Helen’s otherworldly facial beauty and the down-to-earthness of her heavy pregnancy.

Mélanie Laurent is fine as Adam’s girlfriend, but it’s not a role that stretches her. Isabella Rossellini rounds out the main cast as Adam’s unsympathetic mother. There’s a hint in her dialogue that Adam’s past contains some mental vulnerability or other, and that her matter-of-factness makes her precisely the wrong mother to help him deal with it.

Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mom.

While we might expect Helen and Mary, the lovers of the two men, to recognize instantly the difference between the two when they swap roles—while Anthony takes Mary to a motel room for nooky, Adam nervously tries on the role of Anthony in Helen’s life—they seem not to, at least on a conscious level. Yet quite obviously each woman responds to what they clearly regard as a side of their man they’re not accustomed to: Helen responds to Adam’s hesitant courtesy, his “new-found” sensitivity; Mary is turned on by Anthony’s forcefulness, his sudden sexual inventiveness. Clearly, despite being physically identical, the two men aren’t really doppelgängers so much as two complementary halves; Helen in particular may have been living with the wrong half all these years.

There are some further twists toward the end of the movie that complicate the blurring of identity we’ve already witnessed while asking new questions of our understanding of the situation.

I haven’t read Enemy’s source novel, by Nobel literature laureate José Saramago, though I now plan to. To judge by the long description of the novel in Wikipedia, however, the screen adaptation remains largely faithful to its original while extending some of its themes—and, I’d hazard a guess, profitably so.

All in all, a quite fascinating piece, and one that I imagine will reward repeated viewing.

7 thoughts on “Enemy (2013)

  1. Yes, a very intriguing film. I recall seeing it on DVD a few years ago, but many of the details have slipped my mind since then. Your very eloquent review makes me want to watch it all over again!

    (PS Sarah Gadon is a terrific actress and somewhat underrated imv, so it’s great to see her getting some recognition here.)

    • Yes, this is one of those that I, too, quite fancy watching again in the not too distant future. And I couldn’t agree with you more about Gadon!

  2. Hmmm, though I like this film less than you do I won’t give you any backtalk as the director is a great one I really admire. ARRIVAL, INCENDIES and SICARIO are all first-rate!! And DUNE is coming in 2010.

    Extraordinary review in every sense!

    • I too am looking forward to seeing what sort of a fist he’ll make of Dune, bearing in mind the difficulty others have had.

      It was only years after I’d become something of a fan of Alicia Witt’s, through movies like Urban Legend (1998). Playing Mona Lisa (2000) and even Two Weeks Notice (2002, in which she has a small role that had me rocking with laughter), that i realized she was also the creepy little kid in Lynch’s Dune (1984).

  3. Pingback: Prisoners (2013) | Noirish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.