Like that bit in Akira where the long-frozen pod cracks and Tetsuo gets to discover the truth about the government’s secret project, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy finally gets a UK cinema release – two years after production and 11 months after it’s US run. Whether it was shelved due to thematic similarities to Richard Aoyade’s The Double or whether it comes down to a matter of distribution rights, it’s here now; a little late but welcome nonetheless.
In many ways now is a better time for Enemy to shine than a year ago. It’s star Jake Gyllenhaal is hot on everyone’s lips thanks to his stellar turn in Nightcrawler, and award nominations are beginning to appear in its wake. There’s also now been enough time since Villeneuve’s last film, Prisoners, for his follow-up to appear with an element of anticipation. It’s also a good time to drop something that feels a little different, a little quizzical, as Birdman seems set to temper casual cinemagoers to something less ordinary. Whether fortune shines on the film at the box office remains to be seen.
It continues Gyllenhaal’s streak of interesting choices and further develops his relationship with Villeneuve. Where previously he played a supporting role, here he is the star – twice. Enemy sees him as politics lecturer Adam, a quiet, thoughtful and proudly bearded man who, on the recommendation of a co-worker, rents a locally produced movie called Where There’s A Will There’s A Way. Adam discovers his exact likeness within the film, and learns his double is a local actor named Anthony. The first half of the film charts Adam’s obsession with discovering who this doppelgänger is, and what his existence might mean.
Enemy feels like a more concerted attempt to produce a serious artistic statement as opposed to the conventional popcorn fodder of Villeneuve’s last; an indie brainteaser that might earn him a new following with a more ‘cultured’ audience. There are echoes everywhere of the sensibilities of those that have taken this path before him. A child of film, Villeneuve sculpts his own statement from the clay of others. Indeed, Enemy is in itself an adaptation, carved out of José Saramago’s book The Double. Credit then to Villeneuve for channeling Saramago’s rambling prose into something that feels minimal, svelte, utterly deliberate, and for giving it a voice that feels like his own, despite the (unavoidable?) nods to his forebears.
Though set in the modern world, Enemy feels like a lost film from the 70’s, helped in no small part by the film’s yellow-scale palette, Gyllenhaal’s brown suits, his Serpico–like beard and Villenueve’s apparent love of concrete cities. He adopts a super-serious tone from the very beginning, and from start to finish the film feels purposeful, made up of long, quiet scenes. Villenueve’s camera studies Adam, pushing in on him as his world starts to fray at the edges.
The director’s evident ambition to join the upper echelons of cinema’s auteurs is felt most keenly in a dreamlike opening sequence in which Adam (or is it Anthony?) visits an underground club where women pleasure themselves to an all-male audience. At the scene’s moody climax, a tarantula is unleashed; an open metaphor which recurs throughout the film in varying and unexpected manifestations. At this stage, however, the appearance of the tarantula feels symbolic of an insidious idea being loosed upon the world. It’s reminiscent of the way in which Lynch opens a number of his features with some kind of birthing or combustible event. A moment which sets free the toxins that create what’s to come.
It’s interesting to note that this sequence is accompanied by a shot of Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon). She doesn’t appear in the narrative again until much later, but her inclusion early on suggests Adam is psychically aware of her. Villenueve blurs perceptions from the beginning, giving Enemy a welcome slipperiness – is this all in Adam’s head?
The idea of the doppelgänger is hardly new (in fact it’s over-familiarity is one of the hurdles that Aoyade’s film last year struggled to vault). And while Villeneuve doesn’t especially tread any new ground here, he does nail the psychological trepidation that such a situation would create. Adam’s investigation of Anthony escalates steadily like an obsession; when Adam calls him, he sounds like a pranking fanboy (the film’s acknowledgement of the celebrity/fan dynamic). But the rising tension that leads to Adam and Anthony’s first encounter is handled beautifully, honed toward a rivetingly sharp pressure point, a peak that the movie arguably never quite hits again.
Gyllenhaal joins the ranks of a number of great actors who have taken on the dual role staple, handling it with a similar subtlety as, say, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. It’s rarely confusing as to which role he is playing, unless Villeneuve wants you guessing. Gyllenhall applies nuanced differences to the characters (Anthony is more confident, Adam more neurotic). It sets them apart as people. Yet their physicality binds them together as two halves of the same whole.
It’s interesting that Villeneuve’s film changes its name to Enemy. Sure, The Double has been recently taken, but ‘enemy’ underlines the antagonistic conflict between Adam and Anthony. If they are the same person, then the suggestion is that there is a battle to be fought. It further underlines the suggestion that both men are elements of one identity, wrestling with itself, and who hasn’t had that feeling? It lends this strange tale – eerily familiar like a doppelgänger itself – an emotional resonance.
Cool and majestic, beautifully shot and menacingly scored, Enemy is a more interesting film than Prisoners was (and for me personally a more interesting film than The Double). If there are two sides to Villeneuve’s cinematic sensibility warring for supremacy – the commercial director versus the more provocative outsider – then I know which side I’m on. Oh, and just as a warning, Enemy boasts the most effective jump-scare of the decade, outdoing any number of horrors. It does it just once, but jeez, it got me. I guess the whole movie did. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get forgotten by the year’s end. Putting this long-delayed title on a Best Of 2015 list may end up looking absurd, but that might not stop me.