By Tom Nixon
Of the two doppelganger flicks released this spring – and it’s fitting that in many ways they resemble one another — I must confess I’m part of a likely minority who prefers Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy to Richard Ayoade’s The Double. The latter, Ayoade’s loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name, stars two of the buzziest young actors currently in the business in Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, and its nightmare-scape is designed to draw maximum attention, so suffocatingly stylised as to suggest one of Wes Anderson’s obsessive compulsions. It’s a film that’s committed to its pitch black, farcical tone and bursts with no little creativity, as its powerless protagonist struggles lamely against a gallery of grotesque bureaucratic caricatures, attempting to wrest some control over a machine-society that barely notices his paltry existence, deaf to his many pleas and objections.
In his desperation he encounters, or creates if you like, a more magnetic, successful version of himself, only to look on helplessly as this double effortlessly achieves everything he has ever desired. It’s a setup mined for maximum tragicomic frustration, and Ayoade isn’t afraid to veer away from the novel in his search for a distinctive identity, but The Double is never particularly challenging, falling back rather too easily on tropes already trademarked by Terry Gilliam, if not Kafka and Dostoyevsky himself. It’s little more than fun, sturdy dystopian filmmaking, wearing some well-trodden ideas — about male impotence, psychological projection, the malleability of identity and a lack of individual agency in society — brazenly on its sleeve.
Filmed before his other, more successful Gyllenhaal collaboration, but released afterward with an almost apologetic lack of fanfare, Villeneuve’s Enemy is based loosely on a José Saramago novel entitled, you guessed it, The Double, and boy is it an acquired taste. Saramago was openly influenced by Dostoyevsky, and Villeneuve’s film has a similar premise to Ayoade’s, but strikes me as not only the more courageous, interesting work but the more entertaining and moving as well, which is a surprise given how little I’ve thought of Villeneuve’s previous efforts up until now. Even the great Roger Deakins, who single-handedly rescued Skyfall from its descent into ridiculousness last year, couldn’t paper the cracks in Villeneuve’s bizarrely well-received slow-burn thriller Prisoners, though he was primarily responsible for the film’s best moment (an almost Michael Mann-esque drive to the hospital).
That glorified procedural thought it was Fincher, but it only differed from every overlong, self-serious TV whodunnit you’ve ever seen by virtue of its blandly competent A-list cast — led by Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Cop Who Needs More Sleep And/Or Less Coffee — and a side-plot where the victim’s father’s head-clunkingly allegorical ethical dilemma resulted in the depiction of some fairly brutal vigilantism. Where were the people who went after Zero Dark Thirty for what turns out to be the exact same implications (torture gets results), one might ask? Prisoners was also a film which employed biblical signifiers like a scream of its own significance, and took great pleasure in announcing its themes of thwarted masculinity, economic hardship and the dangers of alcoholism long after every vaguely discerning viewer had already figured them out. The love in some corners for the previous film Incendies was slightly more understandable, given the inherent emotional weight of its subject matter and Villeneuve’s refusal to sugarcoat any of its horrors, but that film too struck me as obvious, over-written and portentous to a fault, especially whenever Thom Yorke’s warbling kicked in over harrowing images of war-torn landscapes and haunted faces.
The thing that amazes about Enemy is that it succeeds not through a directorial 180 but by intensifying the traits that had previously made Villeneuve so annoying. His self-seriousness is more pronounced than ever, yet such stony portent seems a necessary extension of his protagonist’s narcissistic, guilt-riddled psyche, a Hitchcockian mingling of fear and desire thickening the air. It’s the first Villeneuve I’ve seen where the direction and material seem aligned, and perhaps that’s because he’s confronting the same kinds of demons that spawned his signature style in the first place; no surprise to find he’s been calling it his most personal movie. He’s clearly having fun as well; like the talking fish of Maelstrom, the most comparable film of Villeneuve’s career thematically, Enemy is too silly not to be aware of its own silliness, but it’s so straight-faced, so lovingly composed and so determined to explain itself through its audiovisual design that it manages to sidestep both the cheap laughs of pulp horror and the pomposity of something like Prisoners, attaining an exclusively cinematic kind of joy I would never have anticipated from the director in question.
To call the film’s approach to narrative “economical” barely cuts it; Villeneuve opens with the epigraph “chaos is order yet undeciphered” before offering the visual motif of a key, gleefully daring us to penetrate the right lock, or perhaps the wrong one. Inevitably, he has come under fire for being deliberately, indulgently obtuse, and it’s true that he effectively treats exposition as anathema here, but a close viewing reveals a painstaking meticulousness to Enemy‘s construction which reminds me of David Cronenberg’s similarly misunderstood Spider. It’s a fitting comparison in more ways than one, as both films are consciously arachnid specimens; alien yet recognisable as phantoms of our darkest, most revealing dreams, predatory in tone, web-like in construction, and intent on not only exposing but cinematically evoking the insectile drives our civilisation was built to veil.
It may therefore be pointless summarising a plot, but suffice to say that the film follows two Jake Gyllenhaals as they gradually become aware of one another, invade one another’s lives and take one another’s women, with unsettling and telling consequences. One of the Gyllenhaals, Anthony, is a confident but mediocre actor with an implied recent history of cheating on his now extremely pregnant wife Helen. The other is Adam, an introverted, neurotic history teacher living with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), and he’d probably love to be a little more like Anthony. What proceeds is a dread-soaked descent into abstraction, a trapped and guilty man’s retreat into the depths of his own splintered psyche, rummaging through his most primal feelings about himself, the objects of his desire, and his oppressive headspace — represented by claustrophobic Polanski interiors, looking out over a Toronto of sprawling brutalist architecture disappearing into thick smog, piss-stained and poisonous.
Helen (the great Sarah Gadon, who looks like she’s chewing on her Cosmopolis phrase “you reek of sexual discharge” for the bulk of the film) may be the key to unraveling this mindfuck, seeming so obviously to be a manifestation of male anxiety, gliding quietly around their home and occasionally locking onto Anthony with a gaze that’s at once alluring and emasculating. Also relevant to the film’s concerns are the professions of this pair of Gyllenhaals. Anthony is first spotted in a movie winkingly recommended to Adam by a creepy co-worker, and we too see ourselves in movies — sometimes the darkest recesses of our consciousness we keep hidden from polite society, sometimes the ideal selves we’ve never had the capacity or courage to inhabit for real. It’s only fitting that any doppelganger should be an actor, particularly for a man who might resent the role of civilised man he is forced — by his wife, by society — to play. Alternatively, perhaps he wishes to detach himself from the reality of his affair, fictionalising it to ease his shame.
Adam’s history lecture about the methods of control exercised by dictatorships, meanwhile, is similarly telling. On the one hand, Gyllenhaal is imprisoned within a society and a marriage that won’t enable him to satisfy his hungers without consequence, while on the other he’s imprisoned by his body, enslaved by instincts over which he has no control — though again, that may simply be the rationalisation which best alleviates his guilt. Little details in the margins enhance the film’s all-consuming feeling of being trapped in a web outside one’s control; a poster of what looks like totalitarian propaganda peeling off the wall of a tunnel, a broken car window or tangles of electrical wires resembling spider’s webs, reflections creeping across eyes creating the illusion of multiple pupils, bug-like.
More than anything, Enemy reminds of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, another waking nightmare about the struggle between fidelity and primal impulse, complete with glacial tracking shots, a bourgeois sex cult and a jarring, provocative ending I won’t spoil here (let’s just say it’s destined to become notorious). It’s hardly on the same level, of course, but the chance of offering Kubrick’s glorious swansong as a legitimate reference point is pitifully rare, and the same goes for a combination of Vertigo, The Tenant and Spider. Enemy may be minor amid such company, but by belonging there at all it’s automatically my kind of movie. I’m pretty sure my double would feel the same way.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.