based on a book, Best of 2014, cinema, Danny Bensi, Denis Villeneuve, doppelgängers, doubles, Enemy, favorite films, film reviews, films, insanity, Isabella Rossellini, Jake Gyllenhaal, Javier Gullon, Jose Saramago, Kedar Brown, literary adaptation, Melanie Laurent, Movies, Nicolas Bolduc, Prisoners, Sarah Gadon, Saunder Jurriaans, secret societies, set in Canada, Spanish-Canadian films, spiders, surrealism, Tim Post, twins
For better or worse, I’ll probably remember 2014 as the cinematic year of the doppelgänger: while its true that film fads tend to come in groups (hello, superhero films…), there seemed to be something almost systematic and planned about the sheer number of double/doppelgänger movies that were released last year. Right off the top of my head, there was The Double, The One I Love, Coherence, +1, The Face of Love and Enemy…to be honest, I’m sure that I’ve even missed a couple somewhere along the way, which is always the best indication of a too-crowded field.
While I managed to see all of these doppelgänger films (with the exception of The Face of Love), there was one that stood head and shoulders above the rest: Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double. Not only was Enemy the best doppelgänger/double movie that I saw in a crowded field, it was also one of the very best films I saw all year. Paranoid, grim, heavy with sustained tension and more than a little existentially terrifying, Enemy is a modern classic, a cracked, black mirror that reflects back the unbelievable ugliness of our post-industrial era and asks us all to take a good, long look at our reflections.
In a way, Enemy hits all of the familiar beats in any doppelgänger film: it’s what it does with them that makes the film such a spectacularly creepy, unforgettable march towards insanity. Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college history professor with what seems like a pretty mundane, run-of-the-mill life: he rides the bus to work, teaches a room full of bored young people about things like patterns and repetition and then goes home to have sex with his equally bored girlfriend (Melanie Laurent). Adam’s comfortable routine is shattered, however, after a co-worker makes a seemingly innocent movie recommendation. After watching the film, Adam notices something a little shocking: the waiter in one of the background shots is a spitting image of himself. After doing some lo-fi detective work (thanks, Google), Adam discovers that the actor, Daniel Saint Claire, is actually named Anthony Claire.
In short order, Adam is obsessed with his suave double and begins to follow him around, before progressing to calling his home and speaking with his wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon). In no time, Anthony is aware of Adam’s existence and the two schedule a face-to-face meeting in a no-tell-motel. Once the two men finally meet, however, the mystery only deepens: it turns out that Anthony is not only the exact image of Adam but that he also has all of Adam’s scars and birthmarks. Freaked out, Adam decides that he wants nothing to do with this bizarre situation and attempts to remove himself. As it turns out, however, Anthony is now just as intrigued as Adam and has no intention of letting him get away. As Adam finds his life becoming more intertwined with Anthony’s, he also runs the risk of losing his identity completely. What’s the real truth behind their relationship? What’s the deal with the strange, underground club that Anthony frequents? And just what, exactly, is right over the horizon, intent on wiping away the dividing line between fantasy and reality, between waking world and nightmare?
The very first thing you notice about Villeneuve’s film is the sickly yellow, jaundiced pallor that suffuses every frame of the film, from the very first shot to the very final image. It’s a diseased, queasy effect that perfectly meshes with the film’s unbelievably deep, sustained sense of dread to create something that could best be described as the apex of “feel-bad” cinema. When combined with the film’s choppy editing style and evocative score, the effect is all but suffocating: many films attempt to grab an audience and refuse to let go but Enemy is one of the very few that succeeds to such a fabulous degree. It’s absolutely no lie to say that I found myself nervous, tense, jittery and, to be honest, kind of seasick for the entirety of the film’s 90 minute run-time. There are many, many reasons to absolutely love Enemy but one of the very best reasons to admire the film is for that unbeatable sense of dread that Villeneuve threads through everything: you keep waiting for something terrible to happen…and waiting…and waiting…when terrible things finally do begin to happen, it’s not so much a release of the built-up tension as it is a confirmation of your worst fears. I can think of very few films from last year that even approached this level of tension, much less executed it so flawlessly: in this aspect, Enemy is heads-and-shoulders above most of its peers.
While the film looks and sounds amazing, there’s always an important factor to consider with any doppelgänger movie: the “twin” performances. In this case, Villeneuve coaxes some astounding work from Gyllenhaal, who’s quickly becoming one of this generation’s most intriguing, impressive actors. Unlike my complaints with Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in Richard Ayoade’s The Double (2014), Gyllenhaal is able to bring enough separation between Adam and Anthony to establish them as distinctly different personalities. It’s all in the small details: a smirk here, a squint there, the particular way in which one of the “twins” stands as compared to the other…there’s nothing as obvious as what Eisenberg did and Gyllenhaal’s performance is all the more impressive for it. In fact, I’m rather surprised that he appears to have snubbed during the awards talk rounding up the year: I found his performance to be exquisite, certainly better than his work the year before in Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) and, perhaps, the equal of his performance in Nightcrawler (2014), which I’ve yet to see.
If I can have one real complaint regarding the film’s performances, it would be that Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon get much less to do than Gyllenhaal does. While Gadon gets some nice scenes in the film’s final reel, Laurent never gets much to do beyond looking bored and reacting to what happens around her. It could be that Villeneuve and writer Javier Gullon purposefully kept the character of Mary slight, as a form of comparison with Adam, but it still seems like somewhat of a missed opportunity. While there’s virtually no reason to compare Enemy with Prisoners, aside from the obvious Villeneuve/Gyllenhaal connection, I can’t help but think back to Melissa Leo’s excellent performance in the latter and feel like Enemy really could have used a strong female presence to provide some balance.
One of the most impressive, unforgettable aspects of Enemy has to be the way in which Villeneuve combines the mundane, everyday aspects of the film with some truly surreal, nightmarish visual flourishes. While the oppressive yellow color palette is the most obvious, continual example of this, there are plenty of creepy, weird things happening in the margins and backgrounds of the film, along with some pretty outrageous showstoppers: I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of the film’s surprises but suffice to say that Enemy featured two of my very favorite horror scenes of the year, which is doubly impressive considering that the film probably wouldn’t be considered a true horror film in most quarters.
Here’s the thing, though: Villeneuve and company understand that true horror, the soul-shattering, world-destroying kind, isn’t precipitated on fountains of gore and slick CGI monsters. True horror is based around dread and fear, the sustained, horrifying revelation that everything we think we know and hold dear is actually an illusion or, worse yet, a lie. In this aspect, Enemy is practically Lovecraftian: the film peels back the corner of our comfortable reality, revealing the howling, mad chaos that lurks behind everything. There’s a truly existential sense of horror here, the idea that everything we are can be wiped away in the blink of an eye, by forces too powerful and terrible for us to even begin to understand. Enemy ends before we get to see the “real” picture but we get enough of the image to know that what lies beneath the thin veil of reality is enough to end us all a hundred times over.
I’ll be honest: based on last year’s Prisoners, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Villeneuve. While the film was well-made and featured some truly great performances, it never really seemed to take off like it should have: by all accounts, I found Big Bad Wolves (2013) to be better than Prisoners in just about every way, including its darkly comic tone. This time around, however, I was completely blown away. Enemy is such a well-made, exquisitely crafted film that I’m now obligated to hitch my cart to Villeneuve’s wagon. There’s an intelligence, mystery and genuine sense of horror found here that I find all too rarely in films, regardless of their era or genre…to say that I’m eagerly awaiting Villeneuve’s next film might be a bit of an understatement. There are no easy answers to be found in Enemy: if anything, the film’s logic seems to intentionally frustrate any easy notions of understanding or empathy on the part of the audience. Enemy is a truly strange, alien, unsettling film and, without a doubt, one of the very best of the year.