There’s an old saying that everybody in the world has a double. Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve reteams with his Prisoners co-star Jake Gyllenhaal to explore this theme with a film that co-stars, well, Jake Gyllenhaal. Enemy is a topsy-turvy doppelgänger tale about identity with a weird psychosexual subtext and William S. Burroughs and/or Franz Kafka-esque vibe.
This lurid, surreal psychological drama opens in a strange sex club that one of the two look-alikes is patronizing. Your guess is as good as mine as to which of Gyllenhaal’s characters is indulging at the strip club.
As Adam, Gyllenhaal plays a rumpled nebbish of a history professor at a college in Toronto, where he is seen lecturing a class. The absent-minded professor (who even shows up late for a class) is holding forth on how dictatorships use entertainment to maintain control. During a break a colleague recommends that Adam see a movie with the portentous (if not pretentious) title Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, which he proceeds to rent. Much to his astonishment, Adam discovers that one of the actors in a minor role named Anthony St. Claire looks exactly like him. (For those keeping score in the symbology department, while “Adam” can obviously refer to the first man, “Claire” can be translated from the French to mean “clear,” as in see-through.)
One of the great mysteries of this movie is that the nerdy Adam actually has a hot looking blonde lover, Mary (Melanie Laurent), although their relationship and sex life does not seem to be very satisfying to either partner. In any case, after viewing his alter ego in Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way Adam appears to try to force his will on the sleeping Mary by having anal sex with her, which the awakened, irritable Mary interrupts. Then she angrily dresses and departs.
Adam then embarks on an obsessive odyssey to track Anthony down, using deception in his detective work. He finds out that the actor has a wife who — like Mary — is young, blonde and beautiful. However, Helen (Sarah Gadon, who — getting back to that Burroughs vibe — appeared in Naked Lunch, The Fly and Spider director David Cronenberg’s 2012 Cosmopolis and his son Brandon Cronenberg’s feature film debut Antiviral) is at least six months pregnant. In the dialogue Mary mentions that Anthony has been unfaithful to her, which suggests that it might have been him at the sex club, and not Adam.
In any case, when Adam finally comes, literally, face to face with Anthony, the bit part actor appears to be more like a doppelgänger in the sense of an evil twin, than just a mere look alike. When Anthony rides his motorcycle he wears a full face helmet with opaque visor, which makes him look like some sort of an insect. Indeed, bugs, in particular arachnids, are a surrealistic element of this increasingly complicated, convoluted, creepy story. In a key scene the cracks formed by the broken glass in a mirror allegorically resembles a spider’s web. (Paging Peter Parker!)
[PLOT SPOILER ALERT:] Eventually the two men try to deceive their women, switch sex partners and so on. Will the duplicates dupe each other and their women? As the natural order of things is inverted and upturned, all Hades breaks loose.
Adam and Anthony wonder how it’s possible for them to look so much alike. Were they Siamese twins separated at birth? To try and find out Adam visits his caustic, bitchy mother, nastily, coldly played by Isabella Rossellini, who appears to be a painter. Perhaps this is another clue as to what it all means — just as actors create roles, painter’s render images, while historians examine the past. The fact that a father is never glimpsed may also be significant. Be that as it may, although Rossellini has a cameo and appears in only one scene, she is heard berating Adam and insulting his apartment in a phone call at the top of the picture.
Enemy is based on the 2002 novel The Double by the Nobel Prize winning Portuguese author José Saramago, with the screenplay by Javier Gullón. In addition to Gyllenhaal, Villeneuve’s 2013 Prisoners, which garnered heaps of buzz, had a top flight cast, including Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard and Paul Dano. The Québec-born Villeneuve’s 2010 Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Like these films, Enemy, which opens in L.A. on March 21, has a decidedly indie sensibility with its non-narrative structure and offbeat plot.
Enemy is set in and made on location at Canada. To tell you the truth your addled reviewer is not really sure what Enemy is all about and what it means. But he is sure of the following: While most Americans don’t tend to think of our neighbors north of the border as being particularly kinky, given the recent shenanigans of Toronto’s crack-smoking, liquor swilling, et al, Mayor Rob Ford and considering this film, I think that we should start rethinking our perception of Canadians. And maybe relocate the location of that proposed and partially-built fence between the U.S. and Mexico…