“Chaos is order waiting to be deciphered” is the epigram for Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and while the film doesn’t cite its source, it’s from Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago’s The Double, upon which the movie is based. Saramago is a lot of things, including a Nobel Prize winner (for 1998’s Blindness), but subtle isn’t one of them. And the epigram is one of those statements that feel so true as to seem facile: Order is not “reality,” and it’s certainly not “truth.” It’s just a narrative we impose on randomness to help ourselves sleep at night. OK, so what else you got?
By the time I sat down to watch Enemy, I’d forgotten it was based on Saramago’s book and that I’d even read Saramago’s book, which might be the best way to receive this atmospheric tone poem. Villeneuve has transposed the film from some unnamed sprawling metropolis to a very recognizable concrete-colored Toronto, and injected the film with a distinctly Canadian feel. The director has some of the same instinct for raising irrational tension as Atom Egoyan, and there’s something in the rhythm of his pacing that recalls David Cronenberg. These characters behave nothing like Americans, and maybe nothing like actual people would in the real world. But that’s Saramago - he’s hardly Emile Zola.
There’s some pleasure to be had in the contrast between the grubby worldliness of Villeneuve’s mise en scene (decorated with freighted symbols such as a graffito of a man giving a totalitarian salute, the word “chaos” chalked over and over on a blackboard and a recurring infinity sign that appears as a logo) and the trajectory of Saramago’s doppelgangers.
Both of these men - Adam, a depressive history professor who perceives his life as a cycle of banality; and the more footloose and confident Anthony, a small-time film actor who nevertheless seems to live large - are portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal’s performances are quite good in a conventional sense in that he is able to, by subtle shifts of body language and the attitude of his ginormous actor’s head, immediately convey which character he’s currently into. While this is a real departure from Saramago’s novel - in the book, the characters have the same stance and bearing - it not only makes for an interesting performance but it allows us to easily follow what could have been a confusing plot.
Anyway, Adam is slogging through the everydayness of his life as an associate professor, delivering the same lectures all day then returning to the same bland (and brutally accurate) high-rise apartment every evening, when he’s eventually joined by his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) with whom he shares sad dinners and even sadder sex. One afternoon he’s accosted in the faculty lounge by a co-worker who perceives his ennui and makes a movie recommendation. While Adam admits he “doesn’t really like movies” (which might put him squarely in the target demographic of most Hollywood would-be blockbusters), he goes to a video store and rents a copy of the film.
It’s not much of a movie (watch for Bruce Greenwood in the film-within-a film) but something about it bothers him. So he gets up in the middle of the night and watches it again and spots his exact double, playing Bellboy No. 3.
While most of us probably wouldn’t recognize ourselves if we saw ourselves in the street, Adam is thoroughly freaked out by the existence of his clone. He rents Anthony’s other movies (the actor uses a stage name, which adds another layer to the identity confusion), and eventually tracks the guy down, passing for him at a talent agency and holding a creepy phone conversation with Anthony’s pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon).
There is a delicious moment before certain possibilities are foreclosed - perhaps Adam is Anthony, perhaps he’s a split personality who has just discovered what the other half of his divided self has gotten up to. But almost precisely at the 30-minute mark - the end of the first act - the movie switches to Anthony’s perspective. There are indeed two men, identical in every way except for their minds and presumably their experiences (although there’s some third-act doubt cast on that).
If you’re the sort who goes into the multiplex looking for tidy answers, then Enemy is liable to leave you baffled, if not angry. I’m not at all able to say what the spider imagery is about, or what the opening sequence - which comes off as a riff on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut - is supposed to establish other than Anthony’s player credentials and the seeds of his psycho-sexual nightmares. And while the visit with Isabella Rossellini is welcome, and she reinforces some of the things we think we know about Adam, she only ups the ambivalence factor when she tells him he should get over his dream “of being a third-rate actor.” (Really, Mom? But third-rate actors have such nice apartments, and very nice wives.)
Things get progressively weirder, propelled by the atonal score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi and a cool diffuse light that reveals Toronto as a city of fascist architecture as we near the end. But for all its feints toward the surreal, Enemy never quite achieves its highest ambitions. It’s a movie that makes you feel odd, and in the end maybe a little cheated. But it’s right there in the Philosophy 101 epigram: You can’t say you weren’t warned.
Enemy 87 Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini Director: Denis Villeneuve Rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language Running time: 90 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 03/28/2014
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