Here’s how I rated Enemy. One point for being a showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal, one of my favorite young actors. A second point because Gyllenhaal plays two characters. Half a point for the one scene with Isabella Rosellini who hasn’t been seen onscreen anywhere near enough. One point for being a weird movie. Add one more point for being a very, very weird movie. But one point off for having a surprise ending that will drive you nuts for days afterwards as you try to figure out what it means. Plus and minus adds up to total of 3.5 points.
I liked Enemy a lot. I see so many movies each year, many of which are near-clones of previous movies, that it’s a treat to see a movie with an unconventional take on things, even if it’s disturbing. Enemy is based on the novel, The Double, by Portuguese author, Jose Saramago. He also wrote the novel Blindness, which was the basis for the terrifying science fiction film (2008) about an epidemic of blindness.
But Enemy is not everyone. Notice the R rating. And saying that, I also think it’s a movie that you don’t have to see on the big screen to appreciate–it doesn’t have spectacular effects or incredible photography (interesting photography, integral to the story, but not incredible, like say, Noah.) Wait until it comes out on DVD and see at home. In fact, I recommend seeing it at home, so you can replay the movie right away to catch all the things you missed.
The first thing you see on screen is this quote: Chaos is order yet undeciphered. Ah, okay, I like to be clued in to what a movie is about. So this one is going to be about chaos. Or maybe it’s about order that we haven’t deciphered yet. Or—not necessarily.
The opening scene is so disturbing that if it had gone on for a few more minutes, I would have walked out. Mercifully it was short. At a private sex club, prostitutes are performing. One woman is whimpering as someone inflicts pain on her. The men in the audience all have different reactions. Some are enjoying what’s happening. Others aren’t. One man, wearing a wedding ring, covers his eyes in disgust. But he doesn’t leave. None of the men do. Another woman presents a huge tarantula on a silver platter, puts it on the stage floor, and then may or may not crush it with her high-heeled shoes.
You are palpably relieved that this scene ends quickly but the disturbing memory of it, the horrid sexuality of it, spreads like venom through the rest of the film. Could that be the theme of the movie– how adultery, in any of its guises, can poison a man? Maybe. You have to continue watching.
It’s Toronto, Canada, in lifeless cream on beige tones. (Some call it “sepia.” I don’t know about that–sepia implies nostalgia, cream on beige is without personality.) Concrete and glass buildings, no gardens anywhere, passersby never talk to one another. (None of the charm of the real city, just its scary, lifeless monoliths.) Everybody’s Caucasian, I mean everybody.
Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college history professor, who gives the same lecture over and over. (Although he looks just like the married man we saw briefly in the opening scene, we know right away he is not the same man. Sometimes the only way to be sure in the film is to see if character has a wedding ring on or not, a small visual that takes on enormous consequences later.)
Adam lives in a studiously lifeless penthouse apartment, with not one piece of artwork, or multi-colored sofa cushions, not even a house plant. He has lackluster sex with his pretty blonde girlfriend, Mary (Paris-born Melanie Laurent), who is so bored with him that she walks out one night.
Several times Adam gives lectures about totalitarian states and how they use different methods to keep its people down, such as the Romans who used “bread and circuses.” But the lecture ends before Adam comments on how today’s dictators control their citizens. Does this mean that the entire movie is a depiction of living under a dictator?
One day in the teacher lunchroom, a colleague mentions that Adam should see a movie he really liked. Is this referral to the movie deliberate, meaning is there some force outside of coincidence that is ruling Adam’s life? Who knows.
So Adam finds the movie on DVD–a send-up of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the bellhop in the background, who never says a word, is the spitting image of Adam. He’s a third-rate actor who’s been in a few movies and his name is Anthony St. Claire. Turns out that Anthony is rich, lives in a nicely decorated penthouse apartment, and his wife, Sarah (Toronto-born Sarah Gadon), though not an exact double for Mary, is also a pretty ice-cool blonde. (Shades of Alfred Hitchcock, who favored Snow Queen blondes, run through the film. Think David Lynch and Alain Resnais and Twilight Zone, too. You could make an argument for this film having a lot of influences.)
Sarah is also noticeably six months pregnant. In fact, sometimes (another theme here?) her prominent baby bump looks exactly like the swollen belly of the tarantula in the opening scene. Hmmm, do we want to go there?
Well, maybe we might, because although there aren’t a lot of spiders in the movie, there are a few spider references that shouldn’t be ignored. Such as the intersection of the power lines above the city that look like spider webs. Are we all living underneath a web of poison?
And what about Adam’s Mother (Rome-born Isabella Rossellini), a possessive single mother. She’s only in one scene but would such a famous actress play such a small part unless it was more significant than we thought at first?
Where’s Adam’s father? Don’t some lady spiders do whatever they can to attract a mate and then kill the hapless sperm donor right away? And don’t we discover later that Sarah, despite her seeming wan beauty, is one determined young mother-to-be. Hmmmm…
Growing ever more disturbed by the existence of his double, Adam tracks him down and eventually the two of them meet. This is not an occasion of joy, by the way. These guys are not twin brothers separated at birth. They are indeed exact doubles, even sharing the same scar.
Each man distrusts the other. Anthony accuses Adam of sleeping with his wife and insists that Adam help even the score by working things out so Anthony can sleep with Mary.
Things are really getting weird. Who is who in this film? Are these really two separate men? Or is this some kind of complex Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde psychological thriller? And, doesn’t the teacher’s abbreviated name sound like “Abel,” meaning the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel? And didn’t Cain kill Abel… oh, boy, where is this film going?
If you’ve stuck with the movie thus far, you are going to insist on seeing the ending. And that’s the conundrum of this movie. I won’t tell you what the ending is—actually I’ve read a lot of reviews of this film, and the critics are indeed keeping the ending a secret. Just know, that the last scene prompted quite a few “what the h—‘s” in the audience I saw the film with.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is most known for Prisoners, another strange (and gratuitously violent) movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. It was actually shot after Enemy but released before it. It got an excessive amount of positive attention, in fact, there was Oscar buzz for Hugh Jackman’s performance. I intensely disliked the movie (see my review at HYPERLINK “http://www.boldlife.com” www.boldlife.com), but it was such a well-crafted piece of work that it was obvious Villeneuve was going to be a director to watch.