Double Up: Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013) – Blu-ray review
Gyllenhaal and Gyllenhaal renuite with Prisoners director Villeneuve to create a heady remix of its paranoid themes that pulses with weirdness.
(Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
Our enduring fascination with doppelgängers – that mysterious possibility that our exact double may be walking around, living a parallel life – has been well catered for by cinema, a medium whose blend of performance and technical wizardry makes it possible to literally buy one, get one free. Enemy, the latest addition to the genre, is quite happy to mess about in the sandbox of shifting identities without worrying unduly about plausibility, as sadsack academic Adam (Jake Gyllehaal) discovers that actor Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks and sounds exactly like him.
Denis Villeneuve directed this back-to-back with his mainstream Hollywood thriller, Prisoners, further twinned by the shared presence of Gyllenhaal. That film was fascinated by the possibility of secret lives and the thin moral code that separates good and bad; Enemy plays like a jazz riff on its themes, the weird, wired virtuoso B-side. It’s the kind of film where the director simply doesn’t care that he’ll be accused of overcooking the style or laying on the influences too thick, because it sets itself up so brazenly as an experiment.
So what’s here? Villeneuve has been worshipping at the altar of the three Davids (Lynch, Cronenberg and Fincher), all of whom have covered this ground in their time. From Lynch, Villeneuve takes the bizarre dreams (a spider-riven sex club), recursive cutting strategies and a star (Isabella Rossellini); from Cronenberg, he borrows the Canadian setting, the chilly architecture and a star (Sarah Gadon); from Fincher, he borrows a mounting sense of paranoia and a star (Gyllenhaal, of course).
Yet Villeneuve adds his own penchant for melodrama, as his camera glides, the score stalks and the whole thing dances on the knife-edge of silly and disturbing. That held true of Prisoners, too, but Enemy is absolved of that film’s meretricious attempts at talking-point cinema because this is pure fantasy. Arguably, that approach allows it to be a more thoughtful, ambiguous film. True, Villeneuve doesn’t go anywhere that other doppelgängers films haven’t gone – the switched sex lives; the envy and self-hatred of seeing seemingly better, happier lives; the gradual blurring and overlap of personalities. Yet this is pertinent stuff in an age of second life and online avatars and – because the treatment is so abstract – Villeneuve can concentrate on these aspects with an unusual focus.
It helps that performance is so crucial to this genre – and aptly, one of the ‘twins’ is an actor. In Gyllenhaal’s great performance(s), we get two men (one driven half-mad with failure, the other hiding behind a shell of arrogant cool) who are distinct yet strangely interchangeable… except it isn’t strange because, of course, that’s really the same guy in front of the camera. Villeneuve lets Gyllenhaal’s decisions determine the emphasis and tempo of the subtext, especially when Adam and Anthony start to ‘play’ each other.
Meanwhile, everybody else is along for the ride, symbols of the man/men’s solipsism and narcissism. In Gadon’s measured, watchful performance, especially, we get an acute sense of how much Adam/Anthony’s egos revolve around the complicity of others in permitting their fantasies. Just how fantastical only becomes clear in Villeneuve’s audacious WTF? ending, the kind of coup that lesser films (and better films) would shy away from.