If Jake Gyllenhaal is starring in a film, we’ll watch it at least once. The debate with Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013) is whether we would sit through it a second time. An indie-type film running at a slow-moving 90 minutes, Enemy benefits from a second viewing. The building winding narrative looks to startle and smile at that final revelatory scene at the end. You are going to want (if not have to) return for another viewing to decipher the film. Gyllenhaal as Adam and Anthony is not in the least to blame with my disenchantment with Enemy; that he is riveting carries most of the film. My primary difficulty with Enemy is in how my desire to work out its meaning as the end credits roll is not excited by the film itself, rather, it is the need to justify the time spent not being thrilled by anything more than Gyllenhaal’s mere presence.
Our viewing could’ve done with a darker room, and less intrigue. Near minute forty, when Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon), tearful and completely freaking out, asks “What’s happening?!” I was echoing the same, although with an emotion inspired by exasperated boredom. My scene was repeated at the end: looking at Sean: What was that? I do not mind working for a film, I expect it with films outside of the Hollywood blockbuster, but Enemy was weighted too heavily on the side of the inexplicable—beginning with that title.
The IMDb synopsis for Enemy is intentionally spare: A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie. This is all we had going in, so needless to say, the opening sequence in an elite strip club was unexpected. Appropriately off-kilter, we proceed to the monotonous life of a History professor Adam (Gyllenhaal) talking of historical cycles, repetition, dictators, control, bread & circuses and quotes from Hegel (everything happens twice) and Marx (the first time it will be tragedy, the second: farce). Like a good student, I made note of the twice repeated lectures. I would look for clues as to which Gyllenhaal was present at the high-end seedy club, and how Adam’s lecture applied to all that would follow. Necessarily, I was having difficulty reconciling Adam to the figure of such darkness and distaste at the opening. Nor could I decipher how a ‘third-rate’ actor Anthony (Gyllenhaal) would get into such company as the elderly suits shown present.
The film takes its time introducing Anthony as the actor Adam sees in a film recommended by a co-worker. The late hours, the waking, the strange relationship with Adam’s friend Mary should provide some clue to the surreality of the film’s situation beyond a simple curiosity of the uncanny. A big mystery in the viewing experience is, as the doppelgangers are introduced, how the doubling works. How can Adam and Anthony be identical and yet not the same person? And how could they be the same person, yet noticeably distinct to others? An actor is a constructed persona, and ‘third rate’ (such as (an illuminating) Adam’s mom would suggest) reads bad actor in its multiple meaning—a bad character. But being an asshole doesn’t make a person necessarily horror-music terrifying—so I had to take the actor’s (and film’s) word for it…
A problem with Enemy is the dramatic tension the film was applying with an incredibly heavy hand. The burgeoning and resounding woodwinds and tympani of high anxiety and impending doom were applied as unavoidable cues for an otherwise unmoved audience. So one guy sounds just like another on the phone? Why would that freak Helen out? Maybe Adam was a long-lost sibling or cousin or from the same geographic region. Their interaction on the campus is bizarre, not because she is trying to internalize some emotion or other, but because Adam seems so charming and not the awkward recluse previously observed. He steps around corners and becomes another man. But is there anything to suggest Helen is dealing with a husband with a mental disorder (ala multiple personality disorder)? Even if she did not know he was a professor (instead of a no-longer-working-actor), he is yet to be explained in this scene.
I thought I had an understanding of the uncanny, even reading Freud’s thoughts on the matter, but Enemy is so overwrought as to call attention to itself. Perhaps it isn’t about the uncanny, because the film would otherwise read insecure if anxiety is to be created by such overt means. As it is, the film was ever waving its screenplay saying it has the answer, it knows what’s going on!! Haha! Don’t you wish you knew? Except I find this move the opposite of compelling. The ridiculousness of the uneven application of melodrama generated apathy, not suspense. It would have been another thing had I arrived at the conclusion with a conclusion, but I was just dumbfounded.
No doubt, we were still recovering from the Mary (Mélanie Laurent) and Anthony scene in the hotel room where Anthony and Adam have their own discourse on body demarcation earlier. Why is she suddenly discovering a band on the finger of a lover that is not supposed to be two actual people at this point in the film… I believe one could argue her horror as being his horror manifested, his ego projecting through her in a fantasy sequence as supported by subsequent events. Sean remains unmoved and views the scene a significant flaw in the narrative. There is none of the concrete, the coherent, to ground the narrative leaps. The exchanging of (man-woman) pairs serves to muddy the discourse, and not necessarily in a satisfying way. Where is the entry point into the psychological–the dark corridor into the theater of the erotic? We observe no evident exit, only a ‘spinning top’ for psychoanalytic confirmation, aka the spider.
I am curious about the exclusivity of the key…that part of the film eluded me.
I failed to pinpoint the moments of confirmation between Adam and Anthony, but I perceived their connection nevertheless—thanks to a need to understand the title and the recollection of a popular saying. So a man can be his own worst enemy… and? What was the conflict about? I missed the spider symbolism throughout, so I was disabled in my reading; yes, I did see the one at the open and close and its shift in scale. I had a hard time interpreting the otherwise expressive face and posture of Gadon (Helen). The one character I could come to care about, Adam, does something so reprehensible at that lengthy turning point near the end that I wanted to discard the whole film. If Enemy would deny the viewer a sympathy and optimism with a husband’s struggle with a shoe fetish and sexual infidelity, the film is an unparalleled success. I fear, however, that the conflation of woman with spider blames female sexuality as the source of man’s conflict—the woman, bearing yet again—the double-cultural-bind of domestication and destabilizing predation; in neither case is her sexuality liberating to the men in the film. In the end, neither Adam nor Anthony are enemy to the other (though fears yet present themselves); no, woman is the enemy to which the title alludes. How positively unstunning and unthrilling a revelation….
I may have enjoyed the film had I been better prepared: perused other viewers’ readings, for example, in order to get a sense at what the conflict between the doubles was. I couldn’t get a sense of what was at stake—or rather, wasn’t made to care. I would recommend Enemy on the basis of Jake Gyllenhaal’s superb performance alone; and with the recommendation of a good dark quiet room and absolute attentiveness. Otherwise, I’d recommend using your viewing minutes re-watch your favorite Hitchcock, Fincher or Lynch.
Enemy (2013, US release 2014). Director: Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by Javier Gullón; based on The Double by José Saramago; Music by Daniel Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans; Cinematography Nicolas Bolduc; Editing by Matthew Hannam. Studio: Mecanismo Films, micro_scope, Rhombus Media, Roxbury Pictures. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Adam & Anthony); Mélanie Laurent (Mary); Sarah Gadon (Helen) and Isabella Rossellini (Mother)
Rated R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Running Time: 90 minutes.