Enemy featured image

EnemyDenis Villeneuve, director
Javier Gullon, script based on The Double by José Saramago

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Adam Bell/Anthony St. Claire), Melanie St. Laurent (Mary)
Isabella Rossellini (Adam’s mother), Sarah Gadon (Helen Bell)

The hype
Last weekend, Enemy won Canadian Screen Awards for: Best Director (Villeneuve), Supporting Actress (Gadon), Cinematography (Nicolas Bolduc), Editing (Matthew Hannam) and Music (Bensi & Jurriaans). It was Villeneuve’s first film to be shot in English and was quickly followed by the much bigger budget Prisoners, which was financed by Warner Brothers. Both star Jake Gyllenhaal, who clearly enjoys working with Villeneuve, the Quebecois auteur, acclaimed for Incendies and Polytechnique. One can’t imagine a better weekend than this one for the film to be released in English Canada.

The premise
History prof Adam Bell gets the shock of his life when he watches a DVD and finds himself playing a small part in one of the scenes. Baffled, he does some research, and eventually figures out the person who looks and talks exactly like him is an actor named Anthony St. Clair.

Anthony’s real name is Clare, not St. Clair and he has a pregnant wife named Helen, whom he’s two-timing whenever he goes to his decadent erotic club. Adam is in the midst of breaking up with his girlfriend Mary; neither seems to know the other at all. Both women are cool blondes though they don’t look alike.

Adam seems to be genuinely searching for answers when the “two” men meet in a hotel room rendezvous that smacks more of an assignation than an investigation. Anthony is less concerned; he wonders if they’re brothers and wants to meet Mary—alone, and dressed like Adam.

Overlaying this apparently simple plot are images of spiders, which may be controlling the matrix of the cold, impersonal city that both Adam and Anthony live in. Of the two women, Mary is oblivious until matters spin out of control while Helen finds herself searching for solutions much like Adam.

One thing is certain. The atmosphere of foreboding that permeates this film prepares the audience for a tough conclusion.

The analysis
Enemy is based on the novel The Double by Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago. Like most of Saramago’s work, the story has fantastic elements and ultimately exposes a reality far bleaker than most people imagine. His strength as a writer is to make an audience yield to his pessimistic sensibility and tragic view of the world. Blindness, Saramago’s most famous book, was made into a film by Canadian producer Niv Fichman; here, he has co-produced with Villeneuve’s Incendies partners, Luc Dery and Kim McGraw.

Given this creative support, Villeneuve has crafted an art film that is far different from his American thriller Prisoners. Jake Gyllenhaal is given far more scope to act than in that well-made Hollywood film. Instead of playing a buttoned-down cop, he gives us two sides of a coin: a sensual, charismatic actor and a repressed scholar. There are a lot of silences in this film, which Villeneuve and his team exploit beautifully.

Enemy is an art-house mystery about identity: how we construct and how quickly we can lose it. At its best, it creates a deceptive atmosphere that is as hypnotic as a spider moving in on its prey.

The skinny
While there’s much to admire in Enemy, the film feels too metaphorical. Despite some terrific performances—in particular by Gadon and Gyllenhaal—the emotionally cool atmosphere of Enemy works against its plot and actors. The search for identity, while well played out, has become too much of a trope in literature and film. Think of Kafka and Dostoevsky. True, Saramago may be on their level but how many film adaptations by his literary precursors in the doppelganger school are classics? Not one—and neither is this. Enemy is worthwhile but ultimately an airless exercise in existential ennui.

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