Review first published by FilmLand Empire
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered” reads text near the beginning of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, proclaiming the film’s status as a thorny puzzle in need of careful decoding.
Enemy may be adapted from José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, but it is equally haunted by the spirits of Hegel, Lynch and Antonioni. As university lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) addresses his students on control, distraction and the (expressly Hegelian) repetitiveness of history, Hegel also lurks in the background, his system of dialectics (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) visible in a web of associative ideas scrawled in spider-like script on the blackboard behind Adam. Adam is himself caught in a loop of history, his every day a drearily repeating pattern of teaching (and teaching what seems to be the same lesson, ad nauseam), then going home to mark papers and have passionless sex with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), who always leaves shortly afterwards. Adam’s ennui is written on his face, his dissatisfaction is audible in his regular sighs, and his jaundiced worldview is reflected in the sickly yellow filters through which Enemy has been shot.
Change is coming. After the movie Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way is recommended by a work colleague as ‘something cheerful’, Adam deviates from his joyless routine, staying up that evening to watch the DVD instead of going to bed as usual with Mary. There on the screen, in a bit part as a ‘bellhop’ (a patent play on Adam’s surname), is an actor who is the uncanny spitting image of Adam himself. The name listed in the credits, Daniel Saint Claire, turns out to be a pseudonym for local actor Anthony Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal). Anthony is the antithesis to Adam’s thesis: where Adam is withdrawn and anxious, Anthony is assured and aggressive; where Anthony loves blueberries, Adam cannot stand them; where Adam is single and childless, Anthony is married, with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) six months pregnant; and where Adam has, as his mother (Isabella Rossellini) puts it, a “fantasy of being a third rate movie actor”, Anthony seems to be living that dream (while himself dreaming of an attachment-free life filled with one night stands and kinky sex). Some kind of synthesis seems inevitable – imperfect and unresolved, in the Hegelian way.
In a famous Taoist riddle on identity and transformation, the philosopher Chuang Tzu, after dreaming that he was a butterfly, awoke to wonder whether the butterfly might instead be dreaming him. A similar enigma lies at the heart of Enemy, as viewers are presented with a character’s double image, and left to work out which is the reality and which the reflection, which the controlling master and which the slave, which the actor and which the mere rôle – although in place of the butterfly, a spider becomes the film’s recurrent motif as well as the monstrous vehicle for Adam/Anthony’s fears and desires. The spider appears as a prop in a fetishistic act at a gentleman’s club, its web is figured in the criss-crossing of overhead tram cables or in the patterning of broken glass, and a giant arachnid is even seen looming over the barren Toronto cityscape, like Godzilla surreally remodelled by Louise Bourgeois (whose spider sculpture Maman, or ‘mummy’, is on permanent display in Ontario). Here geography and psychogeography merge, Antonioni-style, as Adam’s alienated experience plays against wide shots of a chilly, depopulated-looking modernist metropolis.
Both Adam and Anthony feel trapped in their respective lives and long for escape – and what the film offers them is a psychogenic fugue reminiscent of the schizophrenically divided identities in Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001). There are other Lynchian motifs: the torn photo from Eraserhead (1977), the mysterious key and theatre of desire from Mulholland Dr., the confusion of performer and part from INLAND EMPIRE (2006), even the presence of Lynch’s ex-partner and regular collaborator Rossellini (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart). Hers is the first voice heard in Enemy, leaving a message of maternal concern on Adam’s phone. “Would you call me back?”, she asks. This forms a ring composition with one of the film’s final lines (“I forgot to tell you your mother called – you should probably call her back”) – and in between we see Adam several times screening and ignoring calls from his mother. Call Me L8r is also the title of one of the films in which Anthony has appeared, the numeric value of its unconventional orthography alluding obliquely to the film’s spider motif. If Rossellini’s mother is all at once absent and ever-present in Adam’s life as a nagging source of perceived dominance to be avoided, then Gadon’s mother(-to-be) Helen is regarded similarly by Anthony as a controlling, ensnaring figure from whom he seeks refuge in serial adultery.
Here we see a legacy of repetition not unlike those about which Adam lectures: his inner conflicts, the product of parenting by Rossellini’s strong-willed, protective single mother, seem destined to turn Helen into a single mother too, in an ineluctable cycle that is only reinforced by male acts of escapism. Overwhelmed by his environment, equally attracted to and repelled by women, and incapable of containing his errant desires, Adam is figured as primal Man in perpetual exile (from himself as well as Eden) – engulfed by modernity and entrapped by matriarchy. The result is an intelligent, elliptical mystery, with the most arresting final scene of any film in recent memory. Expect many days of deciphering to follow.