Encountering a double, or doppelganger, is an ancient fear with long literary credentials. There’s something primeval about it, the pagan myths are replete with twins, both evil and otherwise, and the Bible has some very famous twins of its own (Jacob and Esau being the primary example), but perhaps the one that connects most readily to the ancient fear of duplicity, two-faced and double-tongue-edness, is the redoubtable Thomas. The Apostle, whose name means Twin and whose surname, Didymus, means Double, was famous for his doubting that the risen Jesus was who he said he was and not just a lying two-timer.
Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted from José Saramago’s novel The Double by Javier Gullón, deals with just this horror. Denis Villeneuve had an industrious year last year, releasing Prisoners and Enemy, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal, two the the darkest and most unsettling films of the year by far. Enemy, shot in sickly yellows and organ-failure browns, feels as if the whole movie is a fever dream induced by cirrhosis of the liver. By titling it Enemy instead of The Double he puts the audience on its toes, beginning with a brooding tension.
On the surface it is about someone who discovers a man that looks just like him (both played by Gyllenhaal). He stalks him, they meet, and then their lives are entwined further and more sinisterly. It is a taut and puzzling film and one that requires spoilers to be unwound, but the fun of it is lost if spoilt, so please read responsibly.
The film begins with Gyllenhaal’s character in some perverse underground sex-show. Lechers are enjoying the lewdness of a woman on a stage and then a silver tray is brought out. Beneath its dome is a fat spider. As the spider crawls off the platter a woman wearing heels holds her foot over its prodigious abdomen. The lechers hush, the drama seems unbearable, some attempt to avert their eyes, others gather their fingers in a mask, but watch with bated breath. A jumpcut takes us to the bedroom of a pregnant woman, her own tremendousness echoing the abdomen of the spider. Thus the film connects spiders and women, both dangerous and alluring, mothering and throttling. This connection is developed through spirally cracked windshields, crisscross weblike wires, visions of skyscraping arachnids lumbering past buildings and the proverbial tangled web woven by the men in order to keep their women in the dark.
The film then moves on to introduce Adam Bell, a history professor pronouncing upon totalitarianism to a class full of docile students. He returns to his lonely apartment and has lonely sex with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). His days elide without import, each day looking like the last until a co-worker recommends a film. In the background, caught initially by his subconscious, is the man who looks like him. After some deft googling he finds that the actor’s name is Anthony Claire. Further stalking reveals that Anthony is married and expecting a child. Adam calls Anthony’s home and they agree to meet, but their similitude is so unnerving to Adam that he attempts to cut off all connection to Anthony. Then Anthony coerces Adam into allowing a more perverse blending of their lives, which causes Adam to find his own weak method of revenge.
Villeneuve tantalizes his audience with all the pieces, but is so confoundingly elliptic that many have walked away with all manner of interpretations, my favorite oddball analysis being that it is a subtle retelling of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. The movie begins with a quote: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” and the undeciphering can only come at the end when the terror of his mistreatment of the women is made real to Adam.
Adam, far from being the innocent party swept up in a twin-faced deceit, is the architect of the suffering and exploitation of two women. He is not a man so curiously similar to another man that they align in scars, freckles and birthdays, he is a guilt-stricken man of two minds.
Earlier Anthony’s wife (Sarah Gadon) accuses him of “seeing her again” and later Adam’s mother references his difficulties to fidelity as well. Adam’s mother also tells him that he has a good job and to stop chasing a career as a bit actor; a job, we find out, that Anthony hasn’t worked at in six months, the amount of time his wife has been pregnant. Their characters are conflated so deftly that the subconscious is the first to catch it and the higher mind left grasping for aliens.
Villeneuve describes the story as simple saying that it is about “a man leaving his mistress to go back to his wife.” But as Adam says to his class, “History repeats itself twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce.” At the end Adam acquires the key to the next gathering of the den of lechery. He palms it, his eyes alight in wickedness, and we see that though he has gained/regained a wife, like a dog returning to vomit, he ingests the temptation again.
Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the bifurcation of Adam/Anthony. Coloring Adam with a temerity and giving Anthony a slight heft without resorting to overwrought markers signalling their characters. And Sarah Gadon is perfect as the forlorn wife, suspicious, confused and frightened by the changes in her husband. Denis Villeneuve has established himself as a director to pay attention to: Prisoners is a wicked little movie, an Ahab crying in the wilderness, and Enemy is a careful depiction (and condemnation) of the madness and destruction of immorality.