As hauntingly strange as it is inconclusive and frustrating, Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), is one of the more head-scratching additions to the doppelganger genre. Yet it will certainly have its fans, and is bound to excite interest after the success at Telluride of Prisoners. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the double role of an indecisive, sexually so-so history teacher who discovers he bears an uncanny resemblance – down to a scar on his chest – to a daring would-be actor. It horrifies both of them and launches them into a deadly game. More than a thriller, this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double is an absurdist-existential mood piece – and a very dark mood it is – leading to an ending with a creepy shock that Kafka and Cronenberg would appreciate. Overall it feels like an experimental outing whose disturbing artiness might find a home with cult and midnight audiences.
This is the second film that the Quebec director has unveiled in the space of two weeks, both featuring Jake Gyllenhaal in leading roles. In Telluride, the kidnapped-child story Prisoners bowed to critical raves and awaits release by Warner Bros. The highly unconventional Enemy, on the other hand, shot just before Prisoners, is a much more difficult film to market because Javier Gullon’s enigmatic screenplay plays with ungraspable themes of duality and identity, the unconscious and the ego. Furthermore, Villeneuve tackles them primarily through music and images rather than conventional narrative. In a case like this, the presence of a movie star like Gyllenhaal acting against type may be disturbing to fans who have other expectations.
The atmosphere is established from the opening pan over the Toronto skyline, an anemic, smog-shrouded city that could be inhabited by vampires. In a dazzling opener that recalls the chilly sexual innuendo of Eyes Wide Shut, a bearded man (Gyllenhaal) joins others in an underground gentleman’s club where live sex theater is the attraction. There is the Bunuelian touch of a silver serving dish whose cover is whisked away to reveal a fat, hairy tarantula. It’s something of an anti-climax when it’s sadistically crushed under a woman’s high heel. The whole scene has a dreamlike quality.
In the everyday world, Gyllenhaal is introduced as Adam Bell, a nervous, uncertain history prof teaching at a big, impersonal university. One has the feeling he knows none of his students. There seems to be a little cloud of gloom hanging over his head, and even his lovely blonde girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), feels the chill when they’re in bed together. He’d rather correct history papers than enjoy intimacy.
One day, on a chance recommendation, he rents a silly romantic comedy and notices an actor in a bit part who looks very much like him. Bemused, Adam takes down his name from the credits and, after a little detective work, finds his phone number. Helen, the woman who answers the phone (Sarah Gadon of Cosmopolis), recognizes his voice and believes it’s her husband, Anthony St. Claire. Later, she accuses her husband of having an affair in an embarrassingly awkward scene that does nothing to advance the storyline, other than convince the viewer everyone is slightly off-kilter. On her own initiative, Helen tracks down Adam and is shocked at the resemblance. The viewer may be surprised at her own physical similarity to Adam’s girlfriend, Mary, except that Helen is quite obviously pregnant.
In fact, the two men are not just similar but identical, down to scars on their bodies, which would rule out the obvious consideration that they’re twin brothers. No, what’s at stake here cannot be rationally explained away. The only discernible difference is that the one who doesn’t like blueberries has a dominating mother (Isabella Rossellini, furnishing the film’s only note of humor). The other’s mother is never seen, though, and given the introduction of more and more absurd elements as the story progresses, one can’t really exclude anything.
The main task for audiences will be making sense of it all and integrating the mysterious sex show, along with Adam’s monstrous nightmares, into the story of doubles. Those who enjoy this kind of ambiguous puzzle may be able to connect some psychosexual dots, but many will pass in favor of more familiar material.
Sporting a neatly trimmed beard, Gyllenhaal creates two quite different characters in the quiet, repressed Adam and his sex-obsessed biker double. Neither are very attractive partners for their women, however, and when their identities start fusing the outcome is metamorphosis.
The oppressive tone never lets up, and how could it, with the lugubrious modern score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans obsessively controlling the mood of virtually every scene. It makes even the silly rom-com feel sinister. Nicolas Bolduc’s images of Toronto as a cold gray town and Patrice Vermette‘s bleak sets do the rest.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9
A Pathé, Entertainment One presentation of a Rhombus Media, Roxbury Pictures production in association with Mecanismo Films, micro_scope
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Isabella Rossellini, Sarah Gadon
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Javier Gullon, based on a book by José Saramago
Producers: M.A. Faura, Niv Fichman
Executive producers: Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Mark Slone
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costumes: Renee April
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Matthew Hannam
No rating, 90 minutes