Denis Villeneuve managed the tricky feat of having two films open at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with both starring Jake Gyllenhaal. While Prisoners hit the multiplexes fairly swiftly, it’s taken a little while longer to have a chance to see Enemy, the film that was apparently shot first. It’s not hard to see why, while Prisoners was a star-packed mainstream thriller, Enemy is a far more oblique film.
Set in Toronto, Villeneuve films the city as a sinister looming metropolis, devoid of almost all colour, the brown-tinged photography veers on sepia. The uncomfortable, uneasy atmosphere is present from the get-go, accentuated by the unconventional, percussive score; this is going to be a tricky film to digest.
While not a horror film, it packs in a number of frights, beginning with a hallucinatory sequence in an underground sex club, as a tall nude woman reveals a plate containing a large spider as one version of Jake Gyllenhaal watches silently.
I say ‘one version’ as he takes on a dual role, we first get to know him as a neurotic history professor, reciting lectures about totalitarian governments he’s clearly given before with little passion, before returning to his bare-bones apartment to have occasional sex with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). The dull, repetitious nature of his life is conveyed in a short few scenes, complemented by his colourless surroundings and appearance, he just blends into the background.
He’s not good with people either, and an odd attempt at small-talk from a co-worker leads to him deciding to rent a movie. In the movie he sees something strange (though not at first); a background actor who looks just like him. He looks up the actor, who only has a handful of credits in roles like ‘Bellhop #1’, and decided to try and track the man down.
Upon finding him, and discovering that he was using a stage name for his acting work (his actual name is Anthony, another layer in the film’s themes of identity), he begins impersonating him, unwittingly or otherwise, to a few people, including, for a moment, Anthony’s pregnant wife whom he calls.
Discovering a doppelganger is a situation that can be explored in many ways (indeed The Double opened around the same time as Enemy) but both versions of Jake never act in a way that could be reasonably expected. I believe that in fact it’s not so much the two Jakes’ actions that provide clues to unlocking the mystery of Enemy, but the reactions of the women around him. Actor Jake’s wife (Sarah Gadon) and teacher Jake’s girlfriend also do not react in any kind of predictable manner to his situation, appearing suspicious and mystified by him, while a single scene involving his mother (Isabella Rossellini) just adds more depths to the initial confusion.
And to top all the weirdness off, there are occasional, striking, giant spider-related visions peppered into the film, who’d meaning must be deciphered.
Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent is the lead role(s), since leaving behind his poor attempts at mainstream fare in 2010 (Prince of Persia, Love and other Drugs) he’s had a run of quality that makes me hope he sticks to this sort of thing rather than trying to get onto the A-list. On the strength of this and Prisoners, Villeneuve can draw out the best in him.
Enemy is a cryptic puzzle-box of a movie, one that I needed to think upon for a while after viewing, but that I now feel I have some handle on unlocking. Its structure recalls David Lynch’s more confounding films, while the intensity of its atmosphere is more in line with Villeneuve’s fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, likewise in its themes and setting. It’s a film that might require a bit more of your time to deconstruct, but is well worth it.